Should You Be Teaching Systems Thinking?

An article I read suggests that systems thinking could become a new liberal art and prepare students for a world where they will need to compete with AI, robots and machine thinking. What is it that humans can do that the machines can't do?

Systems thinking grew out of system dynamics which was a new thing in the 1960s. Invented by an MIT management professor, Jay Wright Forrester,  it took in the parallels between engineering, information systems and social systems.

Relationships in dynamic systems can both amplify or balance other effects. I always found examples of this too technical and complex for my purposes in the humanities, but the basic ideas seemed to make sense.

One example from environmentalists seems like a clearer one. Most of us can see that there are connections between human systems and ecological systems. Certainly, discussions about climate change have used versions of this kind of thinking to make the point that human systems are having a negative effect on ecological systems. And you can look at how those changed ecological systems are then having effect on economic and industrial systems.

Some people view systems thinking as something we can do better, at lest currently, than machines. That means it is a skill that makes a person more marketable. Philip D. Gardner believes that systems thinking is a key attribute of the "T-shaped professional." This person is deep as well as broad, with not only a depth of knowledge in an area of expertise, but also able to work and communicate across disciplines.  

coverJoseph E. Aoun believes that systems thinking will be a "higher-order mental skill" that gives humans an edge over machines. 

But isn't it likely that machines that learn will also be programmed one day to think across systems? Probably, but Aoun says that currently "the big creative leaps that occur when humans engage in it are as yet unreachable by machines." 

When my oldest son was exploring colleges more than a decade ago, systems engineering was a major that I thought looked interesting. It is an interdisciplinary field of engineering and engineering management. It focuses on how to design and manage complex systems over their life cycles.

If systems thinking grows in popularity, it may well be adopted into existing disciplines as a way to connect fields that are usually in silos and don't interact. Would behavioral economics qualify as systems thinking? Is this a way to make STEAM or STEM actually a single thing?


David Peter Stroh, Systems Thinking for Social Change

Joseph E. Aoun, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

The UX of Course Design

UXI stumbled upon a post on Medium by John Spencer called "8 Ways UX Design Theory Transformed My Approach to Course Design - How a Small Side Project Changed the Way I Teach."  As someone who has taught for a quartet of decades and done UX design and even taught UX, I was intrigued by what he might have learned about "how to build community, communicate clearly, and set up effective systems as we design our courses."

A few basics to start: User experience design theory is confusingly abbreviated as XD, UX, UXD or UED, But it is about focusing on the user experience of a device, tool, platform or web application. In doing this, a designer considers accessibility, usability and the easy to overlook pleasure someone might get from the interaction. Do you think Facebook would be as popular if people didn't get pleasure from using it?

Spencer says he first embraced UX design when he worked on creating a blogging platform for students called Write About.

As with any design, you make the best that you can, add features you think users will want - but then you have to deal with how users react and use it.

Is there a connection to teaching?

Every lesson has a design and teachers learn to design based on what works with a course or even with a specific group of students. Even larger in the design scheme is our current use of classroom systems and course architecture.

Building tools and systems that can be used intuitively understand with a minimum of additional instruction or training is key to UX. If you as a teacher spend a lot of time teaching procedures and methods rather than teaching your content and concepts.

Some of Spencer's takeaways make a lot of sense to me. For example, embrace onboarding. Onboarding is the mechanism through which new employees acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors to become effective organizational members. When you sign into a website or register for a service, you might get virtual tour and buttons have pop-ups or rollover text. The designers want you to feel comfortable as you navigate that first experience. Do we offer that to students when they enter a course?

Read Spencer's post, but maybe think about course design as a system that should seem invisible. I don't know that you need to be a UX designer to teach, or that we can all create a course that when you enter it you immediately know where to go and what to do, but we can certainly put the learner at the center of the design.

Learning and Working in the Age of Distraction

screensThere is a lot of talk about distraction these days. The news is full of stories about the Trump administration and the President himself creating distractions to keep the public unfocused on issues they wish would go away (such as the Russias connections) and some people believe the President is too easily distracted by TV news and Twitter.

There are also news stories about the "distraction economy."  So many people are vying for your attention. The average person today is exposed to 1,700 marketing messages during a 24-hour period. Most of these distractions are on screens - TV, computers and phones.  Attention is the new currency of the digital economy.

Ironically, a few years ago I was reading about "second screens," behavioral targeting and social media marketing and that was being called the "attention economy." There is a battle for attention, and the enemy is distraction.

Google estimates that we spend 4.4 hours of our daily leisure time in front of screens. We are still using computers mostly for work/productivity and search. We use smartphones for connectivity and social interactions. Tablets are used more for entertainment. My wife and I are both guilty of "multi-screening." That means we are part of the 77% of consumers watching TV while on other devices. I am on my laptop writing and researching and she is on her tablet playing games and checking mail and messages. It is annoying. We know that.

Of course, the original land of distraction is the classroom. Students have always been distracted. Before the shiny object was a screen full of apps, passing notes was texting, and doodling in your notebook and the cute classmates sitting nearby were the social media. But I have seen four articles on The Chronicle website about "The Distracted Classroom" lately. Is distraction on the rise?

If you are a teacher or student, does your school or your own classroom have a policy on using laptops and phones? If yes, is it enforced?  Anyone who has been in a classroom lately of grade 6 or higher knows that if students have phones or laptops out in class for any reason they are texting, surfing the web, or posting on social media.

Good teachers try to make classes as interactive as possible. We engage students in discussions, group work and active learning, but distractions are there.

Banning devices isn't a good solution. Things forbidden gain extra appeal.

distractionsA few books I have read discuss the ways in which distraction can interfere with learning. In The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World , the authors say that distraction occurs when we are pursuing a goal that really matters and something blocks our efforts to achieve it. Written by a neuroscientist, Adam Gazzaley, and a psychologist, Larry D. Rosen, they join other researchers who report that our brains aren't built for multitasking. This compares to a time a few decades ago when being able to multitask was consider a positive skill.

It seems that the current belief is that we don't really multitask. We switch rapidly between tasks. Any distractions and interruptions, including the technology-related ones - act as "interference" to our goal-setting abilities. 

But is this a new problem or has our brain always worked this way? Is the problem really more about the number of possible distractions and not our "rewired" brains?

Nicholas Carr sounded an alarm in 2011 with The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains, arguing that our growing exposure to online media means our brains need to make cognitive changes. The deeper intellectual processing of focused and critical thinking, gets pushed aside in favor of the faster processes like skimming and scanning.

Carr contends that the changes to the brain's "wiring" is real. Neural activity shifts from the hippocampus' deep thinking, to the prefrontal cortex where we are engaged in rapid, subconscious transactions. Substitute speed for accuracy. Prioritize impulsive decision-making over deliberate judgment. 

In the book Why Don't Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom  the author asks questions such as Why Do Students Remember Everything That's on Television and Forget Everything I Say? and Why Is It So Hard for Students to Understand Abstract Ideas? and gives some science and suggestions as answers. But these are difficult questions and simple answers are incomplete answers in many cases.

Some teachers decide to use the tech that is being a distraction to gain attention. I had tried using a free polling service (Poll Everywhere) which allows students to respond/vote using their laptops or phones. You insert questions into your presentation software, and that allows you to track, analyze, and discuss the responses in real time. The problem for me is that all that needs to be pre-planned and is awkward to do on-the-fly, and I am very spontaneous in class with my questioning. Still, the idea of using the tech in class rather than banning it is something I generally accept. But that can't be done 100% of the time, so distracted use of the tech is still going to occur.

bubbleAnd the final book on my distraction shelf is The Filter Bubble. The book looks at how personalization - being in our own bubble - hurts the Internet as an open platform for the spread of ideas. The filter bubble puts us in an isolated, echoing world. The author, Eli Pariser, subtitles the book "How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think." Pariser coined the term “filter bubble.” The term is another one that has come up o the news in talking about the rise of Donald Trump and the news bubble that we tend to live in, paying attention to a personalized feed of the news we agree with and filtering out the rest.

Perhaps creating a filter bubble is our way of coping with the attention economy and a way to try to curate what information we have to deal with every day.

Then again, there were a number of things I could have done the past hour instead of writing this piece. I could have done work that I actually get paid to do. I could have done some work around my house. But I wrote this. Why? 

Information overload and non-stop media is hurting my/our discipline for focus and self-control.

Michael Goldhaber defined the attention economy in this more economic way: "a system that revolves primarily around paying, receiving and seeking what is most intrinsically limited and not replaceable by anything else, namely the attention of other human beings.” In order for that economy to be profitable, we must be distracted. Our attention needs to be drawn away from the competition.

As a secondary school teacher for several decades, I saw the rise of ADHD. That was occurring before the Internet and lack of attention, impulsivity and boredom were all symptoms. It worsened after the Internet was widespread, but it was there before it and all the personal digital devices.

Back in 1971,  Herbert A. Simon observed that “what information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

We are collectively wiser than ever before. We have the wisdom of the world in a handheld computer connected to almost everything. But it is so difficult to filter out the distractions and garbage that we don't have a lot of success translating information into knowledge. People used to say that finding out something on the Internet was like taking a sip from a fire hose. Search filtering has helped that, but so far the only filters for our individual brains are self-created and often inadequate.


Defining Personalized Learning

mazeThe term "personalized learning" came up recently in several articles about Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his pediatrician wife Priscilla Chan investing hundreds of millions of dollars a year in a new vision of “whole-child personalized learning.”

Their recently established Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) intends to support the development of software that might help teachers better recognize and respond to each student’s academic needs. But they also intend to use a holistic approach to nurturing children’s social, emotional, and physical development. That's a tall order. And not one that has not been attempted before.

In the 40 years I have been an educator, I have heard about personalized learning under terms like individualized instruction, personal learning environment, direct instruction differentiation and even adaptive learning. All refer to efforts to tailor education to meet the different needs of students.

The use of the term "personalized learning" dates back to at least the early 1960s, but definitions still vary and it is still an evolving term. In 2005, Dan Buckley defined two ends of the personalized learning spectrum: "personalization for the learner", in which the teacher tailors the learning, and "personalization by the learner", in which the learner develops skills to tailor his own learning. This spectrum was adopted by the (2006) Microsoft's Practical Guide to Envisioning and Transforming Education and has been updated by Microsoft in other publications.

CZI now has former Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education James H. Shelton as the initiative’s president of education. It is encouraging to me that he said “We’ve got to dispel this notion that personalized learning is just about technology. In fact, it is about understanding students, giving them agency, and letting them do work that is engaging and exciting... Many people have a preconceived notion that ‘personalized learning’ is a kid in the corner alone with a computer. Forget about that.”

CZI will direct 99 percent of their Facebook shares (an $45 billion) to causes related to education and science, through a combination of charitable giving and investment.

Being in technology, you would expect Zuckerberg to want to put a lot of the money and efforts into that area. That's what happened with many of the efforts that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have made in education.

Adaptive learning - which I don't see as the same thing as personalized learning but some people do -  is an educational method which uses computers as interactive teaching devices. The technology allocates both the human (teachers, tutors, counselors)  and mediated resources according to the unique needs of each learner. Computers adapt the presentation of educational material according to students' learning needs. A lot of computer-aided assessment and responses to questions, tasks and experiences direct the next step for the learner.

Adaptive learning technology encompasses aspects derived from various fields of study including computer science, education, psychology, and brain science. Although this approach is not teacher- or student-centered, it does attempt to transform the learner from passive receptor of information to collaborator in the educational process. Adaptive learning systems have been used in education and also in business training. 

CZI realize this personalized learning will extend over decades. They began in December 2015, shortly after the birth of their first child.

The Initiative has invested in BYJU’S, an India-based startup behind a popular online-learning app, and Enlearn, a Seattle-based nonprofit that has developed a new adaptive-learning platform. CZI has also partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on a $12 million “venture philanthropy” grant award. 

When I was starting my teaching career in the mid-1970s, the personalization was mostly driven by teachers and rarely used technology. 

But how does this fit into the newest version of the main federal K-12 education law, Every Student Succeeds Act. Unfortunately, our national plans usually only last for only 4 or 8 years (based on administrations), so we never see a cohort of students go through an educational lifetime. The new law does seem to push states and schools to think about more than standardized-test scores when determining what it means to help students thrive.

Do we need a clear and set definition of personalized learning in order to move forward? How does the CZI idea of educating the "whole child" fit into personalizing learning? 

Want to Launch an Online Courses Business?

online learningHaving spent so many years in education, the idea of trying to launch an online courses business  has never really been on my mind. What would you need to start an online courses business?

I would assume that almost all your concerns and needs would parallel the ones we have in education. It came to mind when I saw a post meant for someone who did want to "Launch a Successful Online Courses Business and offers podcast episodes collected about some of those concerns.

In academia, we strive to attract students. A business model would want to attract clients. But most concerns are similar. For example, you would need to create or choose a learning management system. You would need to explore all the online pedagogy that has emerged the past digital decades. For example, online educators have moved towards shorter courses using 
smaller units. One of the podcasts is on Ways You Can Shorten Your Course which includes “chunking.” Chunking means dividing information into small pieces and grouping them together so they can be stored and processed more easily by learners. That is the kind of design and pedagogy that has come from studying how online learners process information. The way the brain observes and processes information is limited by our working memory's limited ability to process large amounts of data at the same time.

Having spent twenty years launching online courses in higher education, I don't envy anyone starting an online business, but you can certainly build on the work that has been done and have an easier time of it.

Why Create and Use Open Educational Resources?

open textbooksI'm currently working on redesigning courses to use only Open Educational Resources (OER). Ever since I have worked in higher ed, whenever I have discussed open resources that are offered for free some faculty will always ask "Why do people create these things for no money?"
Most of us do our work and create our "intellectual property" (some of which is called that isn't really IP) in order to make money, and in academia to gain promotion and tenure too.
Some of the main motivations for creating OER are the same as the reasons for using OER. In my current project at a community college, we are trying to create course that save students money. Ideally, the course has no cost after students pay their tuition. The biggest cost is almost always textbooks, so using free, open textbooks is important.
I feel that too much course design is based on the textbook used, so OER redesign offers an opportunity for real course redesign. 
On the pedagogical side, open textbooks solve the problem of students simply not buying the book and trying to get by without it. I taught in secondary school for years and all the textbooks were free and I will always say that a free book does not solve the problem of students who do not read the books.
We also know through many studies that students who are strapped for money often choose courses when possible based on low or no cost for textbooks.
Students get annoyed when a professor only uses a small part of the textbook. Using open textbooks allows us to select the sections that we really want to use. Many OER courses use portions of several texts - a few chapters from one and a few from another.
If you not totally happy with the content in an truly open textbook, you can edit it yourself. You can add your own content, add your own images. Of course, in most cases those edits also have to be made open to others to use. I think of an open textbook as a starting point.
Which brings us to the point that creating an OER course takes work. Finding resources is very time-consuming. Editing them is work. If you do it, you do it for your students, for education and for a love of learning that you want to share with the world.
OER creators don't usually make money from their efforts, although there are platforms that offer resources in printed formats for a price. But creators can get recognition and exposure for their efforts and that can sometimes help in the job-hunting and promotion and tenure processes.