Lines in the Sand: Putting Family First

Nana passed away last week.

Nana was my wife’s grandmother. After battling cancer, and finally beating it with the removal of a kidney, she eventually succumbed to infection — a side-effect of her immune system having been decimated by chemotherapy.  

I am fortunate that I have not had to deal with death in my family since I began working full time. But a consequence of this is that I have never had to really decide how to balance related family affairs with the demands of work. In fact, I’ve never really had an experience where family and work collided. I’ve never had to answer the question: work or family. I’ve never had to draw a line in the sand.

In the absence of principles, decisions are hard. Every choice is new and has to be wrestled with singularly. I appreciate that life is complex, and that there are ethical positions that would have us grapple with every decision in this way. But values are important, and values should immediately translate into at least a small set of default positions.

I am fortunate to have a boss whom I also consider a friend and mentor. As the funeral was scheduled and I learned that it would conflict with work and work-travel commitments, I gave him a call. What he said was that, for him, family and religion are areas in which he refuses to compromise. Sure, work commitments might mean that you can’t make it to every one of your kid’s soccer games, but when it comes to things like funerals for close family members and religious holidays, he refuses to compromise, even it it might be moderately inconvenient.

I like to make the distinction between compromise and sacrifice. Compromise is what happens when preferences and tastes come into conflict. There’s nothing wrong with compromise, since compromising is often necessary for the sake of establishing, maintaining, and strengthening relationships. The art of compromise is the political virtue par excellence. Sacrifice, on the other hand, is what happens when you make a decision that conflicts with core values. To make a sacrifice, then, means calling who you are into question. It creates a significant dissonance between what you believe and what you do, and forces you to re-evaluate both. Compromise might be inconvenient, but sacrifice is unacceptable.

I have incredibly fond memories of Nana. She’s my wife’s grandmother, and so I have only known her for a relative short time. But in that time, I have enjoyed her sense of decorum (a true Southern Lady) and her authentic laughter punctuated by little snorts. I have enjoyed her cooking and her love of history. She, along with her husband ‘Papa,’ are committed to family above all else, and so it is fitting that her passing would itself leave this legacy: the fact that I am in Mississippi for Nana’s funeral and spending time with family as they recount stories and rekindle old relationships is a function of a decision precipitated by her passing.

I didn’t make a decision to take off time from work to spend with family in celebration of Nana’s life. The fact that I am here is a consequence of a decision that goes much deeper. It is the result of a line in the sand that I have drawn and now refuse to cross. (A line that I am embarrassed to say that I had not, strictly speaking, made sooner).

Family first.

Learning Analytics as Teaching Practice

Too often, it seems, conversations about learning analytics focus too much on means, and not enough on ends. Learning analytics initiatives are always justified by the promise of using data as a way of identifying students at risk, in order to develop interventions that would increase their chances of success. In spite of the fact that the literature almost always holds such intervention out as a promise, a surprising lack of attention is paid to what these interventions might look like. A recent paper presented by Wise, Zhao, and Hausknecht at the 2013 Conference on Learning Analytics and Knowledge (LAK’13) goes a long way in putting learning analytics in perspective, taking some crucial first steps in the direction of a model of learning analytics as a pedagogical practice.

Analytics About Learning

Analytics ABOUT Learning

Like so many, I often find myself being sucked into the trap of thinking of learning analytics as a set of tools for evaluating learning, as if learning and analytics inform one another as processes that are complementary, but nonetheless distinct. In other words, it is easy for me to think of learning analytics as analytics ABOUT learning. What this group of researchers from Simon Fraser University show, however, is that it is possible to think of learning analytics as a robust pedagogical practice in its own right. From analytics ABOUT learning, Wise, Zhao, and Hausknecht encourage us to think about analytics AS learning.

Analytics AS Learning

Analytics AS Learning

The paper is ostensibly interested in analytics for online discussions, and is insightful in its emphasis on dialogical factors, like the extent to which students not only actively contribute their own thoughts and ideas, but also engage in ‘listening’-type behaviors (i.e. thoughtful reading) that would engender engagement in community and a deeper level of discussion. More generally, however, two observations struck me as generally applicable to thinking of learning analytics as a pedagogical practice.

1. Embedded Analytics are also Interventions

Wise et al make a distinction between embedded analytics, which are “embedded in the discussion interface and can be used by learners in real-time to guide their participation,” and extracted analytics, which involve the collection of traces from learning activity in order to interpret them apart from the learning activity itself. Now, the fact that student-facing activity dashboards are actually also (if not primarily) intervention strategies is perhaps fairly obvious, but I have never thought about them in this way before. #mindblown

2. Analytics are Valued, through and through

By now we all know that, whatever its form, research of any kind always involves values, no matter how much we might seek to be value neutral. The valued nature of learning analytics, however, is particularly salient as we blur the line between analysis (which concerns itself with objects) and learning (which concerns itself with subjects). Regardless of the extent to which we realize how our use of analytics reinforces values and behaviors beyond those explicitly articulated in a curriculum, THAT we are using analytics and HOW we are using them DO have an impact. Thinking carefully about this latent curriculum and actively identifying the core values and behaviors that we would like our teaching practices to reinforce allows ensure consistency across our practices and with the larger pedagogical aims that we are interested in pursuing.

Wise, Zhao, and Hausknecht identify six principles (with which I am generally sympathetic) that guide their use of analytics as, and for the sake of, pedagogical intervention:

  1. Integration – in order for analytics to be effectively used by students, the instructor must present those analytics are meaningfully connected to larger purposes and expectations for the course or activity. It is incumbent upon the ‘data-driven instructor’ to ensure that data are not presented merely as a set of numbers, but rather as meaningful information of immediate relevance to the context of learning.
  2. Diversity (of metrics) – if students are presented with too few sources of data, it becomes very easy for them to fixate upon optimizing those few data points to the exclusion of others. Sensitive also to the opposite extreme, which would be to overload students with too much data, it is important to present data in such a say as to encourage am holistic approach to learning and learning aims.
  3. Agency – students should be encouraged to use the analytics to set personal goals, and to use analytics as a way of monitoring their progress relative to these. Analytics should be used to cultivate sutonomy and a strong sense of personal responsibility. The instructor must be careful to mitigate against a ‘big-brother’ approach to analytics that would measure all students against a common and rigid set of instructor-driven standards. The instructor must also act to mitigate against the impression that this is what is going on, which has the same effect.
  4. Reflection – encouraging agency involves cultivating habits of self-reflection. The instructor should, therefore, provide explicit time and space for reflection on analytics. The authors, for example, use an online reflective journal that is shared between students and instructor.
  5. Parity – activities should be designed to avoid a balance of power situation in which the instructor collects data on the students, and instead use data as a reflective and dialogic tool between the instructor and students. In other words, data should not be used for purposes of evaluation or ranking, but rather should be used as a critical tool for the purpose of identifying and correcting faults or reinforcing excellences.
  6. Dialogue – just as analytics are used as an occasion for students to cultivate agency through active reflection on their behavior, the instructor should “expose themselves to the same vulnerability as the students.” Not only should instructors attend to and reflect upon their own analytics, but do so in full view of the class and in such a way as to allow students to criticize him/her in the same way as s/he does them.

References

Bacon, Vico, and the “Long Tail”

[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user spratmackrel]
[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user spratmackrel]
In his essay, “The Long Tail,” Chris Anderson observes that the our ability to overcome the ‘tyranny of physical space’ through the use of a combination of online databases and streaming services has fundamentally altered business models and, as a consequence, has radically increased our access to information. In the past, limited by the physical constraints of location and shelf space, retailers were forced to carry a small selection of material that appealed to the greatest proportion of a local market. In terms of the book industry, these limitations mean that books rapidly go out of print and become very difficult to come by after a relatively short period of time. In contrast, however, the ability of companies like Amazon to replace small store fronts with massive warehouses, and to leverage the internet to reach global markets, has allowed them to carry and generate significant revenue from products in a way that smaller markets would not produce. This model becomes even more profitable when the products themselves are digital (as in the case of music, movies, books, software, etc), since a single stored copy can be infinitely licensed and distributed, which is to say, sold. The first of three ‘rules’ that Anderson offers businesses in this new digital economy is “Make Everything Available.” Since there is a market for everything, and since the cost of storage is so incredibly low, there is profit to be made even from the most obscure (and awful) material: “In the Long Tail economy, it’s more expensive to evaluate than to release. just do it!”

We do indeed seem to be moving more and more from an economy of scarcity to one of abundance. From a scholarly perspective, this means the development of a rich, extensive, inexpensive (Anderson’s second rule is “cut the price in half, then lower it”), and easily accessible archive of material. As Anderson observes, “it is a fair bet that children today will grow up never knowing the meaning of “out of print.” On the other hand, however, I wonder what an economically driven abundance (concerned with quantity over quality) will have on our ideas about the value of tradition.

In the early days of the Enlightenment, there was some discussion about the scarcity of available information relative to the total amount of material that had presumably been produced. In this, there seems to have been two primary perspectives. From Francis Bacon we learn that it was common for scholars at that time to believe that the works that had survived had done so by virtue of their importance and, consequently, represented the best that the history of ideas had to offer. In contrast to this dominant position, Bacon argued that it was not in fact the best that had endured, but rather the most trivial.

Another error, that hath also some affinity with the former, is a conceit that of former opinions or sects after variety and examination the best hath still prevailed and suppressed the rest; so as if a man should begin the labour of a new search, he were but like to light upon somewhat formerly rejected, and by rejection brought into oblivion; as if the multitude, or the wisest for the multitude’s sake, were not ready to give passage rather to that which is popular and superficial than to that which is substantial and profound for the truth is, that time seemeth to be of the nature of a river or stream, which carrieth down to us that which is light and blown up, and sinketh and drowneth that which is weighty and solid. (Bacon, The Advancement of Learning)

In essence, Bacon advocates an approach that would abandon tradition entirely, and systematically create new repositories of knowledge built upon firm foundations. Since the best has been lost, and what remains has little value, Bacon leaves us with little choice in the matter. Responding to Bacon, who is notorious for his rejection of the value of tradition, Giambattista Vico supports the former view, the view that Bacon insists is in error:

There is, therefore, more wit than truth in Bacon’s statement that in the tidal wave of the barbarians’ invasions, the major writers sank to the bottom, while the lighter ones floated on the surface. In each branch of learning, instead, it is only the most outstanding authors who have reached us, by virtue of being copied by hand. If one or another was lost, it was purely by chance. (Vico 1990, 73)

For Vico, Bacon makes a mistake in accounting for scarcity by emphasizing what falls away. For Bacon, it seems, knowledge persists unless something happens to it, and it just so happens that the finest knowledge is the first to be lost. In contrast, Vico argues that the opposite is the case: that knowledge naturally decays over time, and that its endurance is only made possible through the active (providential) intervention of scribes motivated by an interest in preserving the finest and best. Both authors are resigned to the fact that what’s lost is lost. When it comes to accounting for the scarce intellectual resources that have persisted through time, however, Bacon views this scarcity as evidence of inferiority, and Vico of eminence.

Under conditions of scarcity, whether high (in the case of Vico) or low (in the case of Bacon), knowledge has value, and this valuable nature of knowledge demands a response. If received knowledge is of high value, then it ought to be preserved; if not, then it ought to be jettisoned. But what kind of value does knowledge have within a ‘long-tail’ information economy characterized by abundance? (This would, of course, be an obvious place to bring in Walter Benjamin and his comments on the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and for that reason I will resist the temptation).

A central part of digital literacy (something that we, in higher education, are increasingly encouraged to incorporate into our learning outcomes, at least latently) is the ability to evaluate and judge the quality of sources that are found online. With so much information at our fingertips, and the flattening of value that comes as a result of an approach to content delivery that would release rather than evaluate, are we entering a period that, with Vico, is appreciating tradition more and more by virtue of the fact that we have more and more of it? Or is tradition quickly being stripped of its value as a consequence of the fact that all knowledge is lumped together as equally valuable within the marketplace of ideas? In other words, does our increased access to the past (and other marginal material) give it more importance, more of a voice, in the present? Or does this abundance justify its dismissal (a la Bacon) in the face of a present and future that really count?