Accepting the default configuration

In almost every situation we come across in learning, we accept the default configuration. It’s not because we’re lazy but probably that we’re not even aware that alternative configurations exist. The first time this came to my attention was when I realised in the late 1990s that Windows was not the only computer operating system that existed. Not only were there other options but those options were – IMO – superior in almost every way.

We see the same thing in the default keyboard layout. The QWERTY configuration is not the optimal keyboard layout. It was created to slow typists down because the keys on the typewriters they were typing on jammed. The QWERTY keyboard configuration has been with us ever since. It’s called dominant design, the idea that certain design configurations are common, not because they are the best of competing alternatives, but because of a choice that someone has made.

The problem with dominant design is that almost all innovation is aimed at improving the dominant design rather than exploring competing alternatives. Think about the learning management system. It’s very hard to argue that this is the optimal online learning environment, nor is it a very good content management system. And yet, almost all effort at improving online learning is aimed at making the LMS better. Wouldn’t it be better to invest our time, energy and money into creating something better?

If you’re reading this you probably spend a lot of time writing and you probably use Microsoft Word. You probably use it because it came installed on the computer you’re using and you may not be aware that there are many other options for word processing. You probably type your documents in Calibri because that’s what Microsoft decided to set as the default. This isn’t an inherently bad thing but it has consequences. The fact that you type a document using the default configuration means that your document won’t display accurately on my computer because I don’t run Windows, I don’t have Word, and I don’t have Calibri installed. Is this your fault? Of course not. You just accepted the defaults.

What about classrooms? The configuration of things in space influences the nature of the interactions we can have in those spaces. In the classroom desks and chairs are almost always set up in rows. There is a front and back to the room. The teacher stands in the front. The students sit, facing the teacher. There is a power relationship that is set up by how we configure our bodies in space. Who stands and who sits. Who sits where? Who has to raise their hand to speak? Why have we decided to keep this up? These defaults determine how we teach. Is it because this configuration of physical space represents the optimal learning environment for our students or do we just accept the default?

I’m not saying that all defaults are bad. In cases where you’re not familiar with the field, you should probably accept the default settings. Computer security comes to mind. But, if you’re prepared to dig into the details a bit, then I’m sure you’ll find some settings that you’d rather change. Facebook privacy comes to mind. You don’t have to install open source software on your computers – although that would be a great start – and you don’t have to become an expert on everything you use. But you do need to know that every situation comes with a default configuration that someone else has set, and that you can change the settings.

The next time you are about to start something, ask if there are any changes you can make that will enhance the experience. Ask how much freedom you have to change the things you use. If you have no power to change the defaults then you’re accepting the choices that others have made about how you can teach. Just know that they didn’t make those choices based on what is best for students’ learning.

Pitches for The Conversation: Africa

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I’ve been wanting to contribute to The Conversation: Africa for ages and have only recently been able to put together a few pitches for the articles I’d like to write. If you’ve never heard of The Conversation, it’s a wonderful attempt to get academics to write thought-pieces that are more accessible to the general public and those outside the field. All content is also published under Creative Commons licenses, meaning that what you write is freely accessible and can be distributed in any number of ways. Here are a few points that resonate with me from The Conversation: 10 ways we are different page:

  1. In a world of misinformation and spin, The Conversation contributes to healthy democratic discourse by injecting facts and evidence into the public arena.
  2. All our content is sourced from university scholars and researchers who have deep expertise in their subject.
  3. We are transparent, with every author disclosing their expertise, funding, and conflicts of interest.
  4. All our content is free to read and republish under Creative Commons while the rest of the media charges for re-publication.
  5. We believe in the free flow of information. We disseminate our content to more than 12,000 sites worldwide. That gives our content a global reach of 23 million readers a month, and growing.
  6. To avoid commercial conflict we don’t carry advertising pop-ups or annoying autoplay.
  7. We are a not-for-profit organisation serving the public good.

It’s a bit more formal than a blog because you have to submit ideas to the editors who then review the pitch and provide you with guidelines and deadlines. I’ve drafted the outlines for three articles on the use of technology in higher education and sent the following three pitches to the editors.

Pitch 1: The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed
It has become a truism that when we talk about the integration of technology in the context of teaching and learning in higher education, we must avoid making assumptions about the level of physical and epistemological access that our students have when it comes to using that technology. However, while I acknowledge this important point, I do worry that too much emphasis on it leads to a conservative approach to the introduction of technology into the classroom, and that this conservatism will lead to our students having a significant disadvantage upon graduation. The world is not going to wait for our students to catch up and the deep integration of technology into every other aspect of life continues unabated, at an accelerating rate of change. So, how do we prepare our students for a world that we cannot predict? Is it by adding more content to the curriculum? Or is it by teaching students how to adapt to change, through the aggressive incorporation of digital technologies into teaching and learning practices through intentional pedagogical design?

Pitch 2: Dominant design and the future of technology in higher education
The power of technology in education is in it’s potential to bring about transformative forms of teaching and learning that fundamentally change the people who use it. And yet, when we look at how technology is used in higher education we see it predominantly used to encourage ways of thinking and learning that reinforce outdated pedagogical practices. Dominant design is a management concept suggesting that, once a design has taken hold and become dominant, future innovation in the field is directed towards improving that design rather than challenging it and creating new paradigms. This is exactly what we see when we consider the Learning Management System (LMS) which, for many, represents the cutting edge of technology-integrated teaching and learning. And yet, what does the LMS offer besides a cost-effective content-distribution system and an efficient way to manage students? In order to truly use technology to bring about transformative approaches to teaching and learning, we must establish the following beyond any doubt:

  1. The technology does matter; but pedagogy matters more.
  2. The integration of technology should solve more problems than it introduces.
  3. The technology must be accompanied with a concomitant change in practice.

Pitch 3: Why an emphasis on content in higher education is untenable in a digital society
There are important pedagogical reasons for why a focus on “covering the content” is flawed when it comes to higher education, not least of which is the idea that a higher education must be about more than the accumulation of facts and the ability to recall information on cue. The value of a university is not that its academics control access to specialised knowledge but that there is a need in society for spaces that encourage a deep and critical investigation into the nature of the world. By focusing purely on discipline-specific content, we do nothing to advance the academic project and instead reduce our roles as academics to filters, making decisions about what content is important to cover. But what happens when machines are able to outperform us as content filters? What happens when we can “outsource” information recall to our constantly connected devices? What do we do when our students are able to challenge us on every point we make? Do we retreat into the relative safety of an enforced disconnected classroom, or do we embrace the use of connected devices and work collaboratively with students to create deeper and more critical inquiries into the world?