Digital Vs Human – Richard Watson

9781925321173My previous holiday read ‘Mobile Learning Through Digital Media Literacy‘ was a strong advocate for the integration of digitally based learning through careful application of several key principals. This book, “Digital Vs Human” by Richard Watson, is a far more cautionary tale. Watson is a futurist (interviewed here on Radio NZ) who was mentioned and recommended by Derek Wenmoth in his presentation on future trends.

The main them of the book was around the impact of automation and digitalisation: “How new technologies change the was that humans relate to one another, and ultimately, how technologies change human identity and purpose” (172). However, Watson is clear, boldly announcing in his preface “the problem we currently face is not technology, it’s humans” (xv). He encourages us to take control of the changes going on, to ask questions about purpose and impact, and evaluate ethically any technological change.

He considers the impacts of technology change on jobs, the economy and privacy, identifying that an “imbalance has emerged between work and life…individuals and community …liberty and equality…economy and the environment…physical and mental health” (16). The imbalance is leading to loss of connections and isolation of individuals. Watson implores us to stay in the driving seat, keeping creativity and empathy at the fore. Instead of blindly accepting new technology as progress, we need to ask what is it for? Who does it serve? Watson also considers the development of AI in depth. Where is the line between human and non-human? To what extent will humans “be happy to use machines in place of people and in what roles? Is there an obvious limit?” (58).

A chapter is devoted to education, but strung throughout the book is a challenge to rethink the relationship between technology and education. We live in an era “where our opinions are increasingly based on very little knowledge” where “knowledge of the fact a thing exists or is happening” is more important than knowledge itself (153). Are we over-schooling and under-educating? Are devices conditioning young minds “away from deep reflective thought”? (157). Is our tiered education system skewing our outcomes through the favouring of wealth and social status?

I think the issues discussed pre-date our current era; however, they have been exacerbated by technological change. The underlying issue, which he tackles, is the emphasis on learning to pass, or short-term knowledge. He promotes education through portfolio and people. Watson is particularly cynical about MOOCs and CoOLs which contradicts the research that people and relationships are what make the biggest difference to learning.

 

The final chapter of the book contains some ideas to address the themes in the book:

  • “consider the physical and digital domains as one” (240)
  • “challenge the myth that the intelligence of a large number of people online can exceed that of a single individual” (241)
  • “individuals should be granted the legal right to be forgotten…this might encourage more experimentation and act as a counterweight to conformism” (242)
  • “we must be vigilant against the threat of human extinction” (243)

Earlier in the book Watson suggests only when things are rock bottom, does humanity really truly reflect: “the threat of impeding death or disaster does focus the long lens of perspective” (93). I think the biggest takeaway from the book is the need to promote this wider perspective more often to have more ethical conversations about the progress society is making. The last six words of the book are a great question to start with:

Who do we want to be?


Watson, Richard (2016) Digital Vs Human: How We’ll Live, Love and Think in the Future. Scribe Publications: Croyden.

Mobile Learning Through Digital Media Literacy

mobile-learning_web
Published by Peter Lang

The first striking thing about the way the book (by Belinha S. de Abreu with Vitor Tomé) framed up its argument was defining the digital age as one characterised by performativity (“knowledge appreciated for its relation with power instead of truth”) and speed (xv). It positions this idea in the changing education landscape which needs to reform to ensure devices are instructional tools, not a babysitters – “the disconnect between what is assumed to be learning and engagement versus passive usage” (xxvi).

This led to the deconstruction of myths like the assumption that digital natives will be digital savvy and a task that uses a device does not necessarily have any pedagogical value. It made a clear argument that the placement of digital literacy is not exclusive to any subject and should sit in a cross-curricula space that is dynamic and responsive (I feel like that was a direct challenge to schools that are handling the 21st century by rolling out the same 4 week unit on digital citizenship annually since 2012). It also argues for online learning to be integrated in order to enables the four dimensions of learning 2.0: content, creation, connection and collaboration (144).

The second half of the book tracked through some expansive research undertaken in Portugal. The data was provocative, largely reinforcing the main themes of the book. It made a familiar call for widening our understanding of literacy to be inclusive of digital literacy. It called for the integration of online social networks to develop a participatory culture of global connectiveness: “We cannot continue preparing individuals to solve problems individually, because it is no longer what society asks citizens” (146).

The book asked questions about the privacy of data and the ethics of using mobile learning with students. If the only way to keep students safe is to keep them off the grid – which is unrealistic – then how do we ensure that digital citizenship and media literacy is taught to adequately protect students? NZ resource Netsafe is one place, but the authors quote a lot from cyberwise which looks worth spending more time with.

An overall point I understood from the book was the way that learning through mobile technology is not an automatic process. When we deconstruct the factors we realise that a lot of assumptions need to have significant thought and scaffolding to ensure positive learning outcomes for students. Take the digital divide for instance (or as Henry Jenkins calls it the “participation gap” [47]), which is often referred to in terms of who has the internet and who does not. Even in classrooms where everyone has internet access at home the divide still exists and can be broken down by the speed of their internet, the type of device used, the skills they have in navigating it etc. The authors drew on Yildiz to suggest that the way forward is providing students with multiple means of representation, expression and engagement (49). The solutions to digital literacy and inclusive learning might look very similar if both were explored through Universal Design for Learning.

In conclusion the book clearly places itself as an advocate for a positive position on mobile learning. It laments the fear mongering and negative media that hampers effort to move forward to digital integration. It finishes with this passionate call to arms:

“Mobile tools are here to stay and the underpinning of growing knowledge and understanding is best served through digital media literacy as the greater context and overarching inquiry” (174).


Belinha S. de Abreu w Vitor Tomé (2017) Mobile Learning Through Digital Media Literacy. Peter Lang: New York.

Students at the Centre – Personalised Learning with Habits of Mind

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Costa and Kallick’s habits of mind (2008), which were introduced to me by Karen Boyes at uLearn15, make up the spine of this superb book outlining the process of putting students at the centre of their learning. The book makes a case for prioritising four areas in order to support students to fully realise their potential as global citizens:

  • voice,
  • co-creation,
  • social construction and
  • self-discovery.

These areas guided a transformative approach to personalisation by teaching through the lens of the Habits of Mind.

I responded to the book’s sense of how and the focus on practical application of student-centred learning. A number of structures, templates and ideas could be taken straight into the classroom and these tangible strategies solidify the central philosophy of the book:

“The sense of urgency to respond to the growing diversity of our students, coupled with the innovative technologies currently available, make personalised learning not just a possible approach, but a probable one” (100).

The other strong section of the book that I responded to was the focus on educator’s actions when supporting a student-centred project. The authors suggested that “teachers need to resist rescuing students from struggle and allow them to think and learn” (92). By giving space around the learner, they get an opportunity to learn more about learning dispositions and their ability to persist, self-manage and make progress with a growth mindset.


Kallick, Bena & Zmuda, Allison (2017) Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind. ASCD: Virgina USA.

Wa Ako – Active Learning Stories

visionActive learning is taking place in Wa Ako at the moment. Wa ako is our regular period four slot which has enabled a diverse programme focusing on learning to learn and realising the Newlands College vision. We are building towards two days off timetable in Week Nine where a number of projects will manifest and some impressive ideas will come to life. The following magical stories were just two of the many shared today at the staff’s professional learning session, shared here with permission from the students. Last year a similar post captured student voice and here is some reflection.


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Active learning is something that more accidentally happened for me this year. I didn’t have a active learning project to begin the year with so I turned my focus into what was happening for me in 2018. Through a connection on staff I ended up emailing Steve Logan from Logan Brown and was invited in for a coffee. This led to working shifts at Logan Brown, not doing dishes, but actually preparing the food.

I’m not just on websites trying to figure out what to do next year, I’m actually out there doing it trying to figure out how to keep doing it next year. I simply started with the question: ‘What am I going to do and how am I going to do it?’ And followed through from there. The key challenge for me is not actually knowing what to do when on the job in the kitchen. But the learning for me is about asking questions and being open to advice, guidance and support so that I can develop the skills to be successful.

 – Ben Murdoch (13WG)

I am part of a group of Year 12 and 13 students have been planning a project as part of Active Learning, which involves a day of amazing Science experiments that we hope will inspire more students to develop an interest in the Sciences.

The idea began when I began to notice that there were many students that didn’t choose a Science subject as they passed through high school, or there were some students that didn’t choose to follow through with Science to Year 12 or Year 13. As I thought about it, I realized that most of these students did not leave the Sciences behind because they didn’t like it, but rather because they didn’t want to study it for the purpose of passing a test. I also noticed that the majority of students that did keep Science as a subject had a genuine desire to learn more about the Sciences.

So, I decided that there must be a way to inspire people to take an interest in the Sciences so that they can see it as more than a subject, and rather as the study of how the world works. When we were presented with the opportunity to take up a project of our choice for Active Learning, it was the perfect opportunity to do something about it. So together with some other eager Year 12 and Year 13 students (Rachel Wilson, Becka Tiongson, Shine Wu, Ruth Cabahug, Aneesa Delpachitra and Ryan Mass) we set about doing something that could make a real difference, and have an impact on the future generation. As a group we came up with the idea of involving our neighbour, Newlands Intermediate.

We plan to use the two days we have been given at the end of June, June 29th and June 30th for this ‘programme’. We have several options of how we can run these two days, and we will arrange it to suit however many classes the Intermediate would like to send to us. The plan is to have sessions which last for an hour with three stations. We aim to have a class (or 1/3 of the group) at each station for 20 minutes, and rotate through all three of the stations.

We are well on the way to making this a reality and have even begun taking steps to turn this into a business venture as well.

 – Clarice du Toit (13CO)


These are magical learning stories enabled by teachers letting go of the control and having the students led their own journeys. So many amazing things are happening around the school and the energy is so contagious. It’s very exciting times!

Disrupting Subject Silos – Media & Photography Project

I’ve passionately advocated for department hubs and breaking subject silos in the past, but struggled to find the space for this philosophy to manifest. This collaboration between media and photography is a step towards that vision. Despite it being minor in scale, I hope the ripples will spread strongly.

Earlier in the year, I identified that one of my multi level media classes is on the same line a Level Two Photography class. This planted the seed for some sort of collaboration, eventually working out a model of combining classes to allow students to work with each other within the parameters of content that overlaps both subjects.

Media Learning Intention

Photography Learning Intention

To develop understanding of the technical features of a camera. Including, but not limited to…

  • Aperture
  • ISO
  • Shutter speed
To develop understanding of narrative structure and storytelling. Including, but not limited to…

  • Three act structure
  • Todorov
  • Binary oppositions

Each class had a preparation lesson which offered a useful opportunity for revision in both classes. In assigned groups they prepared a ‘lesson’ for a parallel group in the other class.  The following period, the students were matched up and delivered their lessons to one another. Many felt they already knew what the other class could offer so we stressed that we are all learners and that asking good questions was the key to deeper learning.

Our intention was both to offer a significant learning opportunity for our students and to blur the line that sits between our subjects. On both fronts I think we were successful. Many students reported back shifts in their understanding and the crossover between departments became explicit. However, to develop this approach, I think a stronger framework would need to be in place. One area that challenged the students was how to teach someone else something. Breaking down learning objectives and finding methods to convey information was challenging. Questioning was also something I felt like the students needed more support with. If this structure of more peer-to-peer tutoring and questioning was more familiar, I can see this being far more valuable.

While this is a minor piece of disruption, I think it speaks to the fact that you can create innovative approaches with tradition classrooms. You don’t have to have a sliding door to disrupt the idea of a classroom being contained by four walls and you don’t have to have a fluid timetable in order to see subjects working alongside one another. I’m left wondering how best to sustain this? Could a unit be taught in this way? Next stop… media studies and calculus…!

The Attention Industry Vs Today’s Classroom

A few weeks ago on National Radio, I caught Columbia University professor Tim Wu discussing the “Attention Industry” which he unpacks in his new book The Attention Merchants. He spoke about how our attention is a business – media companies, the
the-attention-merchantsentertainment industry, politics and just about everyone in the public sphere all want our attention. What is new for today’s society is the volume of competition and the ubiquity. There has never been so much competition for people’s attention with hundreds of things trying to grab our attention all day. As Wu point it: “It’s like we’re in a carnival non-stop all day”.

The implications of these ideas impact education. Educators too are in the attention business. We are competing for the attention of our students. When we consider the global competition for attention, can a teacher really be angry about a student who succumbs to click bait and ends up off task for a few minutes? What is the appropriate response when a student is taken away from the class discussion by a notification coming from their pocket?

I feel educators need to embrace being part of the attention business. The ubiquity of technology and the competition for attention that comes with it is part of the modern world and our students need support to navigate it. Wu says “the presence of all those technologies in our lives is driven by this business model and its appetite for more and more of our time.” Students need to be conscious consumers in this market and make autonomous decisions to contribute effectively. We have to be realistic about the world our students are navigating and make it transparent that we are also navigating it alongside them.

There’s deeper thinking to be done around the biological impact that the attention industry is having; but in the meantime, I think our focus should be nurturing agency and self-directed skillsets and focusing on the front half of the NZ curriculum.

The Power of Inquiry – Kath Murdoch

poibookI spent some time thinking about why ‘The Power of Inquiry‘ had made such a difference for my thinking above all the other literature I’ve engaged with dealing with inquiry. From about halfway through the book it became really clear that the point of difference was how holistic Kath Murdoch‘s ideas were around inquiry. Teaching through inquiry wasn’t about just about a process – it’s about a inquiry mindset that drives everything that we do; it’s a “way of being” (180). While this book appears to be more targeted at primary education, it was the idea of the inquiry mindset that I really latched onto and strongly feel is worth engaging with regardless of your sector.

The ideas in the book are really captured by the chapter headings, as titled below. For the purposes of this blogpost I’ve recorded something that each chapter triggered for me as a way of taking these ideas further in my practice.

Creating the Space: How can we design learning environments for inquiry?

I was struck by how this chapter didn’t just consider the physical environment, but also the emotional environment. I would argue these exist concurrently; design physical spaces for positive relationships. To me this means inclusive classroom spaces designed for diverse learners. The ideas of Universal Design for Learning sit nicely alongside this chapter.

Beyond Topics: What is Worth Inquiring Into?

Murdoch consider catalysts and contexts for inquiry, but also emphasises the big picture. The Newlands College vision contains the destination for our students. Any inquiry question posed can be evaluated by asking “how does this fit into the big picture?” (50). So for our Newlands College akonga we should be asking “how does your inquiry fit into our vision?”

Inviting Uncertainty: How can we grow a culture of questioning and curiosity?

The power of the question “what is this making you wonder?” really struck me (58). It’s a question that promote metacognition and allows thinking to be externalised. The process of learning becomes uncovered and questioning may indeed begin to flow. Other parts of the chapter recalled John Loughran’s ideas around questioning in What Expert Teachers Do (2010).

Finding our Way: What role can frameworks and models play in scaffolding inquiry learning?

The balance between formula and freedom was embraced here: “The challenge then is to acknowledge the way we can scaffold our planning and teaching by referring to a process without becoming overly prescriptive” (77). Essentially, I feel one needs to just get over yourself and let go. But also the notion of one lesson inquiries – deepening our understanding of the inquiry process through modeling it in one off lessons.

Assets for Life: How can inquiry nurture skills and dispositions for lifelong learning?

Drawing on Claxton’s learning power, Dweck’s work on growth mindset and Costa’s habits of mind, Murdoch makes a compelling case in this chapter for the way inquiry can prepare a student with toolkit for learning. The takeaway here is the importance of identifying the links to the skills and underlying dispositions that add value to the learning. In the Newlands College context, I believe this sounds like using the words of the vision actively to describe the learning taking place.

To each their own: why make it personal?

The idea that shone in this chapter was the power of letting go balanced with the challenge of letting go. Murdoch spoke about “holding the space” – giving the learning environment enough structure so that students can still find their way even if they find self-management difficult (124).

Staying Accountable: What does assessment look like in the inquiry classroom?

I felt like this quote summed up the entire book really:

Teacher who use inquiry-based methodologies have a firm belief in the transformative power of ownership. When students feel they are the ones ‘doing the learning’ rather than the teacher ‘doing the learning to them’ they are undoubtedly more engaged, and with engagement comes increase potential for learning (147).

Together is Better: How Can We Grow an Inquiry School?

Underlined the importance to me of not just having a vision, but having a deep and shared understanding of what that vision is. The shared aspect of that statement speaks to Murdoch’s section in this chapter on collaborative cultures which have been shown to increase student achievement (171).


Murdoch, K (2016) The Power of Inquiry. Seastar Education, Australia.