Jason Fried, the CEO of Basecamp, a software company that makes productivity and collaboration software, recently announced a ban on all societal and political discussion on the companies own internal Basecamp site, effectively sending the message to employees to leave their politics at the door.
While this (and a host of other policy changes at Basecamp) are baffling given the current climate we live in, it is an especially abhorrent stance for any company that designs software. If there are any organizations that need to be talking about political and social issues these days, it is software companies. Software companies are designing and creating the reality most of us inhabit and, as such, are shaping that reality in both conscious and unconscious ways.
Software design decisions are social and political and those decisions have real-life social and political implications. Software is not apolitical. Software is not neutral. Software is developed by people and, as such, is imbued with the values of its creators. Sometimes those values are explicitly manifested, but often they are implicitly built into software as unconscious biases.
Imagine being a software developer working for a company that will not tolerate discussing whether you should change a profile form field to let people add in their preferred pronouns or gender identity for fear that even talking about it is too politically sensitive?
This is exactly the problem so many in ed tech are warning about. That technology is not neutral. That design decisions are political decisions that have repercussions that can perpetuate the worst in our society.
I want software developers to work in a workplace where they are not only free, but encouraged to have discussions about politics and social issues. I want them to surface hard discussions, to wrestle internally with hard issues, to be free to talk about equity, fairness, inclusivity, representation, Russian bots, political interference, how their platform may be used to spread misinformation and all those issues that accurately reflect the discussions and problems we are struggling within society. I want developers and software companies to talk about all the political and social dimensions to help them become aware of their own implicit patterns and ways of thinking, and to understand how those patterns and ways of thinking get reflected in the tools and technologies they build.
To see a software development company not realize the importance of staff having political and social discussions in a world where technology is constantly being manipulated and repurposed for political ends is, at best, ignorant to the profound role that software plays in shaping our society. At worst, it is actively complicit in contributing to the myriad of problems technology has introduced.
The debate over whether face-to-face is better for students than online is nothing new, but has certainly been more pronounced this past year during COVID and the increased need for online learning. In many cases, it is not even presented as a debate, but instead as a matter-of-fact assertion that face-to-face is intrinsically better for students than online learning. Just this morning I read an article in my local paper where the head of our local teacher’s association while advocating for school closures as our COVID count rises, stated flatly that “I think in-school learning is much better than online”. The internet is littered with stories about the failure of online learning.
I get that mass media isn’t always the place where nuance is explored, nor are these normal circumstances. We are still in reaction mode to the ever-present threat of COVID, requiring institutions to be nimble as they continue to move back and forth from face-to-face to online, then back again and sometimes to a place in-between. But blanket statements that continue to assert that one mode is superior to another need to be qualified as decades of research into online learning have shown that for some people, online learning works better than face-to-face while for some people face-to-face works better.
But even that “for some people” qualifier is an oversimplification of the complex reality of teaching and learning. You could easily qualify those statements further by saying that, for some people, online learning works better for certain subjects, while for that same person, face-to-face works better for other subjects. Statements like those are much more accurate reflections of what works for students.
And even then we have to add yet more nuance to the conversation to take into account COVID and the reality that what continues in most places is still not online learning, but rather a continuation of emergency remote learning. While entire education systems & structures may be coping with emergency remote learning, they were never intentionally designed for online learning. Just look at the supports and structures in place at schools that have a history of online learning as a core delivery method. These institutions often have layers and layers of specialized supports built into them for both students & teachers; supports that institutions who have never done online learning prior to the COVID pivot do not.
Blanket statements that one mode of teaching & learning is intrinsically better than the other for all learners are just wrong and do not accurately reflect the true complexities of what makes for “better” learning environments for some students. For some, it will be face-to-face. For others, online. For yet others, blended, hybrid, or hyflex. Some prefer learning Tuesday mornings at 10. For others, Sunday nights at 7. For some it works better to use pen and paper to take notes, others type their notes in a Word document. Some prefer online to face-to-face in times of COVID because the anxiety of sitting in a classroom with others is too much for them to focus on actual learning. In education, there is never one best way that works for all, and it is long past the time to end this false dichotomy that one method is inherently better than the other for everyone.
I was reminded of this fact last night while my wife and I were watching the BBC production of Les Misérables on CBC. I was also reminded of how annoying watching a serialized TV mini-series over the course of weeks in realtime with commercials is. I have become accustomed to the freedom of binging complete series uninterrupted in a single night, and wonder how the teenage me ever got through the weekly serialized mini-series of my youth.
I know Les Mis mostly from the zeitgeist. I’ve never seen the musical or movie adaptations, or read the book from Victor Hugo. But I had a vague understanding of the plot going into the mini-series from various pop culture references I have seen over the years. I also spent time in community theatre in the 80’s and 90’s and it was hard to miss its influence on the theatre friends I had at the time. It was just something I had never gotten around to watching but always wanted to in one form or another so I was looking forward to this.
I soon realized that my knowledge of the history of France was missing a few pieces. For one, I thought that Les Mis occurred during the French Revolution. But yet the opening scene of the mini-series is at the Battle of Waterloo which was the end of Napoleon’s reign – the same Napoleon that emerged victorious from the French Revolution (I remembered something from high school history). So I realized that the timeframe for Les Mis wasn’t actually the French Revolutionn and I began to Google to do a bit of research on the post-Waterloo time period that Les Mis is actually set.
One of the phrases I Googled was “who ruled France after Napoleon was defeated” and what is the first thing that pops up? A Google snippet from an open course on world history from Lumen Learning.
I followed the link and spent the better part of the evening going down a French Revolution rabbit hole, deep into the Bourbon Revolution and the July Revolution of 1830. Which is the actual timeframe of Les Mis, not the French Revolution that occurred 30 years earlier.
There is a lesson here that OER benefits more than just students. Every time an OER is posted online, knowledge is made public. Public knowledge that can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection. OER benefit everyone in society. Sometimes it can be easy to forget that fact in our day to day work where we often focus on our own localized and specific contexts. But when we make knowledge open, everyone benefits. Even a guy sitting at home on a Sunday night watching a mini-series looking for something to do to fill the time between commercials.
If you want to do a true deep dive immersion into a book, produce the audio version of it.
I have loved producing the audio version of 25 Years of Ed Tech. As I edit the submissions from all the narrators and hear the chapters many times over through the course of editing them, I am conscious that this is exactly the opposite of the type of reading I do on a day to day basis, which tends to focus on quantity over quality. Scan and move on.
This project has given me an excuse to slow down and really pay attention to the details and to what it is each of the readers chooses to emphasize through their reading of the book.
But the piece of this project I am most enjoying is the one that I have had very little to do with, and that is Laura Pasquini’s companion podcast Between the Chapters. Laura has been brilliant at pulling this podcast together. Finding great guests and guiding the conversations in a kind of book club discussion of each week’s chapter.
This week, I had the chance to be a guest on Between the Chapters to talk about Chapter 10: 2003 Blogs with Bonnie Stewart.
I actually asked Laura if I could be part of this convo because, when she said that Bonnie would be her guest, I wanted the opportunity to connect with Bonnie as our roots in blogging are very similar. Before we blogged about education or digital identity, we both were blogging about being parents. That is where I first got to know Bonnie, virtually, and I thought this would be a way to talk about why blogging was so important in those early days around 2003-2006.
The pre-Facebook & Twitter days.
A time when blogs were the place where you connected with others and built relationships. Digital but often strengthened through IRL events and connections like conferences. The essence of those early days of blogging (even though I maybe didn’t realize it quite as much at the time as I do today) was about using the web to develop relationships. This was pretty profound for some of us who were moving from a place where the web was a place we went to in order to find information. The web was now a place we used to build relationships, and blogs played a crucial role in that.
Here is this week’s episode.
The new Pressbooks directory has officially launched. I had a chance to see demos of this earlier this summer and was very impressed with the work that Pressbooks has done in creating a federated search across the Pressbooks EDU eco-system.
One of the features I want to make sure gets noticed is that, not only can you search for open textbooks and books in the directory, but also H5P activities. This is a massive boost to the H5P ecosystem as it now provides another central point to begin to find H5P activities that can potentially be reused (the others I know of are the eCampus Ontario H5P Studio site and the soon to be released (93% done) H5P OER Hub).
However, unlike the other repos of H5P content, the nice thing about the Pressbooks Directory H5P search is that it allows you to see the context that the H5P activity was used in. As we know from Wiley’s Reusability Paradox, the effectiveness of a reusable object relies on the context it is used in (along with an open license) and this new search helps provide some of that context by locating H5P content within an existing resource, giveng educators the ability to reuse not only the H5P interactive but also reuse the context (aka the book content) that wraps around that H5P activity. You get to see how others intended to use the resource and what learning it was meant to support.
For example, this H5P interactive video activity from An Interactive Introduction to Organismal and Molecular Biology on its own doesn’t mean all that much.
However, when you see it within the context of the entire page it comes from, you get a better and clearer sense as to the purpose of the H5P activity and can reuse as much of that surrounding chapter for context to make that H5P activity a much more effective learning object in your own context. Super useful.
Coming back to Pressbooks (the company), I cannot stress how valuable a contribution to the open education ecosystem this directory is, and Pressbooks deserves huge kudos for the work that they have done. At a time when we see plenty of examples of bad faith actors in the edtech space and can point to examples of corporate openwashing, Pressbooks has time and time again demonstrated that you can build a sustainable company by being both a partner and a contributor to the open education ecosystem. There are not many companies that I have worked with over the years that have consistently demonstrated such a deep commitment to the core values of open education as Pressbooks and other companies would do well to learn by their example on how to become an invaluable member of the open education community.