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Posts Tagged ‘critique

I am more often on the teacher end of a Zoom connection than on the student end. So I took in as much as I could as a participant at a recent research webinar.

First I took the time to examine the Zoom interface in webinar mode. It had a green tick on the top left to indicate the quality of the connection. By clicking on the tick, I was able to get connection details, e.g., the session went through the Singapore data centre. I found it reassuring to be on a fast local connection instead of being routed elsewhere.

Zoom webinar tools.Image source

The webinar interface was simple with Chat, Raise Hand, and Q&A options only. There was no option for video or audio interaction nor indication of how many people were present. Only the moderator appeared on screen and was replaced by each speaker in turn.

Even if participants cannot interact with one another, just knowing how “crowded” the room is provides a sense of social space. Zoom can learn from so many other existing systems that have learnt to recreate social presence. One way to do this with low bandwidth overhead is to represent each participant as an icon or with an avatar. This is like the Anonymous Animals that appear at the top of shared Google Docs or the bubble avatars in group chat tools.

Google Docs anonymous animals.
Image source

A seminar makes it easy for a participant to not actually participate, i.e., be a passive recipient. I had to listen activity, take notes and screenshots, and think of questions.

Zoom’s Q&A tool is not interactive, i.e., cannot ask a question and then follow up. If I wanted to follow up, I had to ask another question but the text was not threaded so this would have been visually messy. I found this tool to be rudimentary and very poorly conceived and implemented.

One simple way to overcome this issue and also simulate social presence could be to provide the option to use voice or video for participants. This would recreate a conference-like environment by providing immediacy.

The Q&A tool seemed to work on an embargo system of storing and queuing questions. The questions seemed to go to the moderator without appearing in the chat or the Q&A window immediately. How do I know? There was a lag between a question being asked and appearing on screen.

Participants do not see what questions the others have because of the same embargo system. Again, Zoom could learn from tools like Google Slides where everyone can see the questions and vote up the ones that matter to them.

Google Slides Q&A.
Image source

While I liked the fact that some questions were answered ‘live’ while others were answered in text, I wondered if the speakers could indicate their preference for the moderator to see. That way they would know where to focus their energy. More than once the moderator asked a speaker to answer a question and the speaker had already answered in text, was in the process of typing their answer, or had to repeat the answer verbally.

I conclude with a statement from the session. One speaker said the pandemic was opportunity to push for changes in teaching, but what mattered more was the quality of the change. That sentiment could have been applied to the Zoom session given better quality tools and strategies that work both online and off.

Not a semester goes by when I meet preservice teachers, inservice teachers, or future faculty who swear by learning styles. Every semester, I try to correct such errant thinking.

Someone taught my latest batch of educators the learning styles myth and I felt duty-bound to say otherwise even though my modules were not about that. For me it was like knowing that a bridge ahead was destroyed and I had to warn the travellers blindly heading towards it.

I have a time-tested collection of resources that refute the learning styles myth better than I can. But I also offer my perspective.

Learning preferences are not learning styles. A student might prefer to watch a video instead of read a book, but that does not mean you give in to that preference if the learning outcomes are about reading.

Styles are impractical treatments. A teacher who has been taught to apply styles might prepare lessons based on visual, auditory, and psychomotor (VAK) “styles” because this supposedly optimises learning for three categories of students. The matching styles with strategies is called the meshing hypothesis. This is not only impractical over time, it is also insufficient and self-fulfilling.

Why insufficient? It practitioners are to take styles seriously, they need to cater to all learner differences. There is currently between 70 to 80 style inventories now. Even if we take the lower end, there are 70! (70 factorial or 70x69x68…x1) possibilities. Even if a teacher elects to focus only on VAK, such effort is not pragmatic over every lesson.

Why is focusing on styles self-fulfilling? Imagine being identified or labelled as a visual learner. If that is supposed to be your style and it is catered to, there is no incentive to develop the other ways of learning. Such learning is not only incomplete and irresponsible, a learner also becomes what s/he is labelled, just as easily as s/he grows to accept being called the class clown or teacher’s pet.

Learning styles ignore context. If a task is necessarily psychomotor, e.g., swimming a particular stroke or riding a bike, are visual and auditory learners supposed to rely on imagery and sounds of the same? No, the task necessitates the strategy, not the supposed optimal style.

Now consider an argument from the special needs angle. A visually impaired person cannot help but rely on auditory and tactile learning. But this does not mean that the learner has a style. The circumstances necessitate the reliance on non-visual forms of learning, but no reasonable person would call those forms learning styles.

If the logic against learning styles is not enough, consider what research says about this stubborn myth. Drawing from some resources I have shared before:

The American Psychological Association has come out against learning styles. The APA went so far at to say that “many parents and educators may be wasting time and money on products, services and teaching methods that are geared toward learning styles.”

Video source

The TEDx video above was of Dr. Tesia Marshik, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, who highlighted how learning styles:

  • had no research evidence that show that they improve learning
  • wasted the time and effort of teachers who tried to cater to different styles
  • labelled and limited people into believing they learn best in certain ways

Video source

In the SciShow video above, Hank Green highlighted how:

  • the only study that seemed to support learning styles had severe flaws in its design
  • students with perceptions that they had one style over others actually benefitted from visual information regardless of their preference

This SciShow video and educators Dylan Wiliam and Donald H Taylor cited the work of Pashlar et al (2008) who declared this:

… we found virtually no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for validating the educational applications of learning styles. Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis. We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.

I share the thoughts of Willingham et al (2015) when they concluded: “Learning styles theories have not panned out, and it is our responsibility to ensure that students know that.”

Catering to a supposed inherent style does not necessarily optimise learning. Sadly, learning styles are a myth perpetuated by teacher educators and workplace trainers who do not keep up with critical research and reflective practice. They are easy to latch on to because the pseudo science is a low-hanging fruit that preys on our innate perception of individual differences.

On Wednesday I said I would try out Zoom’s latest feature, Breakout Rooms.

Unlike the randomised groups that an instructor can already create in Zoom, Breakout Rooms allows an instructor to create and name “rooms” or “spaces” that students enter on their own. The easiest way to think about this is stations in a classroom that students choose to visit.

I tried this tool out and here are my thoughts and critiques.

Issue 1
I had to be the host of the meeting to do this. The host has the administrative capacity in a Zoom classroom and is the only one who can see the Breakout Rooms function. That is, if an even higher authority, the systems administrator, enables Breakout Rooms in their dashboard.

I saw this function during my trial run because a systems administrator already made me host of a session. But I did not see this when I was co-host on the actual day I needed to use it. The systems administrator had to make me the host before I could see the Breakout Rooms function appear on my tool bar.

Why is this important? Depending on an institution’s setup, the instructor might not be a host. This might be an unusual circumstance, but it does happen, particularly with folks who are new to the game or less trusting of their users.

In any case, my purpose for using Breakout Rooms was to allow students to more choose rooms to enter based on assigned topics. In other words, I was using homogenous grouping as a strategy. If I had used the random assignment function, I would have created heterogeneous groups and students would not be empowered to make a choice.

Issue 2
When I created Breakout Rooms for the first online activity, Zoom remembered these rooms even after I had closed them. This meant that I had to manually delete them one by one. This is not the case with randomised groups.

Later when I needed to assign students randomly to different groups, the requirement to delete the existing rooms first was a hassle that created a delay. Only after every room was gone was I able to activate the random assignment.

For me, this was an example of Zoom struggling to enable basic classroom strategies. It made something intuitive and seamless in class become clunky and undesirable online.

Issue 3
Here is another example of poor user interface and interaction design.

Students drop out of the online sessions all the time and attempt to come back in. They might drop out due to bad connections, frozen video, or a host of other reasons. Most system administrators require students to enter a waiting room first, so they are stuck in limbo before an instructor lets them into the the online classroom manually.

Zoom provides alerts of waiting students as audio pings, but the notifications are not brought to the frontmost layer. As a result, students might wait a long time because they are get lost in the layers of windows open on a desktop. This is like a student knocking on a locked classroom door wishing to be let in, but there are all sorts of barriers like boards, bookshelves, desks, and people in the way.

When something unexpected happens, I do not panic and I tend to troubleshoot quickly. I am the type of person that people throw laptops and phones at when they do not work. I am also a student and teacher of user interfaces and experiences, so when I say that Zoom is a woeful classroom replacement if you want to do anything more than talk, take me seriously.

I enjoy Wired’s series on expert critiques of movie “reality”. The most recent video was about a fighter pilot’s perspective on how movies depicted aerial dogfights and dodging missiles.

Video source

I know that the entertainment industry provides escape from reality, but it should not define it. That should seem obvious — emphasis on should –but that is the reality nowadays. Given how some folk cannot distinguish entertainment from education, the experts’ comments provide a healthy dose of reality.

What is the parallel with academia and education?

News reports of research do not always capture the rigours of study and the limitations of research processes. Vendors who claim to have one-stop shops ignore the context and complexity of learning and classrooms.

One group of people seem to only want easy answers to complex issues. They are not patient with nuance and details offered by a second group — people who have invested time and effort in honing their craft and developing their theorems. The first group of people would rather be entertained than educated.

After watching a few videos of writers analysing the movie Parasite, I wondered if the field of education might need a deconstructionist movement.

Video source

The video above is one of a few that I consumed after I watched Parasite. The movie was excellent, but I did not know just how good it was until YouTubers like NerdWriter filled in blanks.

It takes specialist knowledge, deep understanding, and a critical eye to spot concepts and patterns. The ability to unpack applies to screenwriting as much as it does to problem solving in any field.

More progressive forms of schooling might have embraced constructivist notions (e.g., social negotiation of knowledge by peer teaching) and constructionist ideas (e.g., hands-on iterating by coding). But I wonder if the ability to pick apart and critically analyse (deconstruct) before creating something new with those pieces (reconstruct) hold more value now.

After all, there is hardly any idea that is truly new. We are simply repackaging what others before us have created or repackaged. There is a value in acknowledging one’s history and respecting the work of others if we learn first to deconstruct.

A few weeks into 2020 is still too early to hear someone utter “best practices”. Worse still, the phrase preceded “in teaching”.

There can be good practices and they are all contextual. What works in one classroom can flop in another — there are no “best” methods or ideas that work in all circumstances.

Consider how background music seems to be the norm in restaurants now. I recently had a family dinner in one that sounded like a noisy food court because patrons had to shout to be heard.

Someone thought that music was a good idea and might have looked into the how music could affect mood. One place did it and then everyone else followed suit whether or not they understood why.

When adopted by many, the strategy might be labelled a “best practice”. However, this ignores the fact that it may not be at all good.

In the context of the restaurant I was in, the music was loud enough that people had to talk above it. As more patrons came in, the din built up.

In the context of classrooms, one teacher’s personality, experience, or competence is not the same as another. You cannot blindly apply a “best” method or tool without first considering what is good for that teacher, the students, and the learning environments.

To cite “best practices” is to be lazy and uncritical. It is not a good way to start 2020. I do not just hope that users of such phrases learn to see more clearly. I will help point these things out.

Sometimes I do not have to share my thoughts about social media. Others have articulated their thoughts more clearly than I could.

In March, Andrea Howard unpacked a magazine article about limiting screen time to counter social media use [full thread].

The TLDR version of this 12-part thread: Blaming social media is a convenient but misleading smoking gun.

Last month, Martin Weller critiqued social media detoxes.

Weller’s message: Take control or lose control. You decide.

Media outlets [WaPo] [ST] were quick to report that a study found that the use of mobile phones resulted in horn-like growths at the base of kids’ skulls.

Video source

The claim was proven false due to lapses in the research and journal review process, and shoddy newspaper reporting.

How many are aware of this? More importantly, how many were literate enough to greet the initial news article with skepticism?

Hank Green did a great job to unpack and critique the research and the news article. His brother John Green narrated a ten-part digital literacies series.

Newspapers and popular media outlets are not going to help readers develop this skillset. We must help ourselves. The devil is in the details and being digitally literate is a key component in the self-help programme.

This seems to be the favourite type of opinion piece in the press.

How do I know? The title provides clues: Teachers should enrich life, not worship the machine.

Both the title and the ensuing article says everything and nothing at the same time. Take this excerpt:

We are already in danger of creating “industrial” school systems, the authors note, in which teachers are reduced to near-automatons, implementing a prescriptive model of education and ticking boxes.

It makes a claim (we are in danger) without backing or evidence.

The second claim about inhuman robo-teachers not only suffers the same problem as the first claim, it is also reductionist. The statement claims to be about everything (“we” and “teachers”), but since it provides no evidence, is also saying nothing.

Consider another segment:

Instead, there is a danger that educational technology, or edtech, may only worsen the industrialisation of the system as governments resort to new ways of measuring student output and teacher productivity.

The writer seems to have only one perception of edtech — one disowned by teachers and students that dispassionately quantifies everything. Such an edtech is a bean-counting LMS provider’s wet dream.

Again this is a claim about all edtech when it is not. Just think about technology owned by and in the creative hands and critical minds of learners. The possibilities defy convention and measurement and that is the beauty of such edtech.

Even when the writer tried to provide balance, his attempt was not an informed one:

…technology can undoubtedly help democratise learning and improve knowledge transmission, but cannot replace the human skills taught by teachers. “Technology can uplift and amplify good teaching but it can never improve poor teaching,” he says. “Learning seems to be a social process.

Knowledge is not just transmitted, it is also negotiated. We are not programmable robots.

Edtech is not an either-or choice. With edtech, we do not have a false dichotomy of wide-reaching access or the human touch. We can have both. Consider how online and blended courses have communication tools to help learners connect. If these courses do not, learners find their own, e.g., WhatsApp groups.

All that said, learning is not always a social process. If the social process is defined by interaction between two or more people, then what is learning by observation (e.g., watching a video), experimentation (e.g., individually tinkering with different methods), repetition (e.g., practising a skill alone), or reflection (e.g., writing a journal or consolidating an e-portfolio)?

No teacher worth their salt should read such an article without questioning every other sentence. The questions should stem not from empty opinion but from knowledge of educational theories and years of critical practice. These questions, theories, and practice test everything and leave nothing unturned.

Today I link at behind-the-scenes (BTS) documentary about Game of Thrones (GoT) with the blog entry of an educator I follow via RSS.

George Couros reflected:

I am a big believer that challenge is necessary for growth and development, but I also know how criticism is delivered and where it is delivered from matter tremendously.

I agree, but I would also focus on who a critique (not just criticism) came from and why it was offered.

A criticism is negative; a critique can be positive, negative, or both.

Who a critique comes from and why matters. I would rather hear from a fellow educator or an authority from my field about my practice or my evidence than even the most observant outsider.

That is not to say that outsiders cannot provide unexpected or serendipitous perspective. They can. But they also do not have shared language and values, and in Couros’ context of reflecting on education, who offers feedback and why they do so matters.

Video source

The video above is a trailer for the GoT BTS documentary. It is a one-minute teaser for an almost two-hour insight into how the final season was prepared and delivered.

If social media feedback is taken at face value, then the final season of GoT was a disappointment. I say that the people who complained about the season should watch this documentary first. You cannot provide feedback on the product if you are not aware of the processes.

No show is perfect just as no teaching practice is perfect. Both are open for feedback in the form of criticism and critique. But the negative feedback on the final season of GoT seemed to come largely from armchair pundits. Many of their reasons were selfish: Self-promotion of self-proclaimed expertise, bandwagon likes on social media, calls for better entertainment.

That is the type of feedback that does not come from the right place for the right reasons. It demoralised and destroys. I have reflected before on how I believe in providing tough feedback as long as it is deserved and comes from a good place.

Who the feedback comes from and why it is offered matters.

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