Audrey Watters on the nature of educational technology


Audrey Watters, presenting to Pepperdine University:

Ed-tech works like this: you sign up for a service and you’re flagged as either “teacher” or “student” or “admin.” Depending on that role, you have different “privileges” — that’s an important word, because it doesn’t simply imply what you can and cannot do with the software. It’s a nod to political power, social power as well.

Many pieces of software, despite their invocation of “personalization,” present you with a very restricted, restrictive set of choices of who you “can be.”

This is gold. It gets to the very heart of the problem. And it’s not restricted to online learning (and online learning technologies) – see my last post on a prof who bans “technology” in the classroom, effectively enforcing the restrictive set of choices of who her students can be. This isn’t about the evils of restrictive Learning Management Systems – it’s about the evils of restricting learning.

And this, on the nature of education itself:

To transform education and education technology to make it “future-facing” means we do have to address what exactly we think education should look like now and in the future. Do we want programmed instruction? Do we want teaching machines? Do we want videotaped lectures? Do we want content delivery systems? Or do we want education that is more student-centered, more networked-focused. Are we ready to move beyond “content” and even beyond “competencies”? Can we address the ed-tech practices that look more and more like carceral education — surveillance, predictive policing, control?

We have choices to make – and we (collectively) are making choices – about what we think education is, and what it should be. If we don’t put some real thought into the reasoning behind, and the implications of these choices, we’ll wind up in some uncanny valley of education where all of the checkboxes are properly checked, but it’s not education as it could have been. As Gardner Campbell says, “That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.”

audrey wattersedtech

on banning technology in the classroom


UCalgary made the national news, with this segment titled “Calgary professor bans modern technology in his classroom”1.

I really don’t know what to say about this. My gut reaction is something like “if they’re tuning out and checking Facebook in class, that’s data about how the class is going, and banning technology would just hide the symptom rather than actually fixing anything.”

Also, the prof still uses her own tech in every class, with laptop and projector etc… fired up. So, it’s not about technology on its own.

This is about control, more than technology. I’m not sure what to make of that. I don’t know the prof, and have never seen her teach. She teaches linguistics and psychology – perhaps her specific subject matter or teaching style work better without “technology”?

I have a bit of a problem2 with instructors having that much control over adult students. She does allow some technology – students are using pens and paper – but bans other technologies that are deemed disruptive3. As one student says in the segment – they’re paying to be there, and they should be able to make their own decisions about what technologies they use.

Ironically, I also see instructors who fall on the other side of the spectrum, mandating that students MUST USE TECHNOLOGY because of reasons. We’re talking about adult students from diverse backgrounds and contexts, and mandating (or banning) anything may just not be appropriate.

Yes, there should be codes of conduct. Mute your speakers. Don’t use loud clicky keyboards. Don’t sit in the front row and watch Netflix marathons, etc…. But, is “banning” technology really a solution? Does it just emphasize that The Instructor is In Control, and that Students Must Behave? The reinforcement of the power relationship may be doing more to have students “on task” than the lack of modern technologies.

update: Dr. Siedivy wrote an article in the Calgary Herald back in September, I’m still not sold. This feels like conflation of cause and effect. Are students unengaged because they have Modern Technology™, or are they facebooking and tweetaring because they’re unengaged in the class? She talks about her sister being unengaged in her technology company meetings, and “multitasking” on mobile devices instead of being bored. Sounds familiar. But, in meetings/conferences/whatever where I’m engaged, the Modern Technology™ either a) stays closed, or more likely b) gets used to support engagement in whatever conversations are happening. Boredom begets unengagement begets “multitasking”. Banning multitasking doesn’t make people magically feel engaged and included in the activities.

  1. although it’s clear that the professor is a woman, so whoever titles segments at Global National obviously doesn’t watch the segments, and has a strong sexist bias when it comes to professors, who are certainly all men of course [↩]
  2. as the manager of the Technology Integration Group, I may have a bit of a bias [↩]
  3. Disruptive as in “causing a distraction”, or Disruptive as in “giving power to those who are not standing at the front of the room”? [↩]
classroomlearning technologiesucalgary

2014 Week 44 in Review

dnorman rebuild

The elearning support website accreted content over the years. It was long overdue for a major overhaul in order to make it useful to people who are looking for info. While that info was in the previos website, it had grown difficult to find stuff because the site had become a dumping ground of content – to the point that the elearning support folks couldn’t find stuff on it, and didn’t know what was there. It needed to be rebuilt to reflect how people look for support, and to make sure we keep it active and current. We had known it was needed for a long time, but didn’t have the time until after the D2L migration was complete. It’s complete now.

So, Irf took the lead and put together a rapid prototyping team, brainstorming how a site rebuild might look. We’re going to be doing it in a couple of phases, starting with the D2L resources. Next, we’ll expand it to include all of the resources to support the core elearning tools provided by campus, as well as to connect with pedagogical and other resources that are available.

A new knowledgebase was built quickly using WordPress (powered by, of course), and the really nice WP Knowledge Base theme. Categories are used to organize posts, and it’s shaping up to be a really nice platform.

  • D2L resources

The plan is to move the full site over to UCalgaryBlogs, leaving the Drupal wrapper behind. Can’t wait.

Campus video

We’ve been looking at what a campus video platform might look like for awhile now. Had a demo this week, and am looking forward to seeing a service made available so we don’t have 500 individually-owned YouTube/Vimeo/etc… channels holding content that we care about.


Moving ahead with a D2L LOR pilot project. Still lots to figure out, but it looks promising.

email change

The UofC’s electronic communication policy states that all official communication be done using email addresses for students, faculty and staff. It’s never been enforced, so only about a third of students had active ucalgary accounts. That becomes a big deal, when email filters start preventing important messages to and from the university. So, students have been migrated to Office365 cloud email, with addresses activated for all of them. And Peoplesoft’s “preferred email” flag now uses that address for all students and staff. Faculty will be set up separately.

So what? Well, it means we’ll be able to activate some functionality in D2L and other tools that had been deactivated in order to protect the privacy of students’ email addresses. Things like the classlist tool in courses, or ePortfolio sharing groups, etc… will be activated in the next week or so, once we know that the preferred email setting has kicked in for everyone.

cone of silence

Looking at my calendar to write this post, and realizing there are a bunch of things I can’t write about here. Dang. Lots of stuff going on. Too early to say much more than that.

week in review

2014 Week 43 in review



We’re working on a couple of badging-related projects in the EDU. Kevin’s looking into Mozilla’s Open Badges platform/framework, and we’re exploring what it means for a department/faculty/university to issue (and accept) badges as microcredentials. Lots of really great discussions on this. Looking forward to seeing what we come up with!

Committees and Reports and Bears Oh My!

Yeah. Making sausage. Mmm. Sausage.

Learning Object Repository

Seriously. I’m having flashbacks. But, we have faculties who need to be able to share files within the context of their online courses, and public websites aren’t appropriate. So, LOR in D2L is being spun up. Thankfully, this time around, it’s just a bunch of checkboxes instead of having to build a platform and implement IMS LOM and other fun bits. I’ve enabled a University-wide repository, where anyone can push content to share with the whole campus. We’re also working with the faculty of Veterinary Medicine, to figure out a good way for their folks to share learning resources across courses in the program.

Open Access Week

Some really good projects going on. Our library supports open access journals in a bunch of ways, including paying the publishing fees for UofC researchers so open access isn’t ironically cost-prohibitive. We also buy copies of every textbook to put on reserve, so students don’t have to spend $1700/year on books. Instructors are strongly encouraged to select less expensive (or free, or open) resources to help reduce the costs to students.

We are working on spinning tup OER and open textbook projects in the province and on campus, but I’m really interested in discussions we’ve started on post-print course resources. We shouldn’t be thinking just of save-as-pdf-or-ePub. What can learning resources be in 2014? How can we better support learning? Dead trees, or their electronic analogues, aren’t it. OER as a logical consequence of a high quality learning experience, not as the ultimate goal itself.

Also, Zygote Quarterly. A really interesting open access online magazine focussing on the intersection of science and design. Lots of stuff on biomimicry. Fascinating. And co-published by one of our engineering profs. Awesome.

Business/Consultant Speak

I’ve been catching myself speaking non-human consultant/management-speak. I don’t like it. Must work harder on not getting sucked into that world. Part of it is a side effect of the New Role, but it’s spewing out more often lately. Stahp.

week in review

on enabling innovation to enhance learning


When we work with instructors, there are 3 general groupings, in terms of their comfort level and technology integration and innovation in their courses.


There is a small group that doesn’t use much technology, doesn’t integrate much in their teaching, and don’t pursue any strategies that would be considered “innovative.” From the outside, this group is often labelled as Luddites or dismissed as being laggards, but that is definitely not always the case. There are important innovations happening in this group, but they may not be visible to outsiders because they aren’t using the shared language of silicon valley innovation. Not every innovation requires high technology, or even technology at all. We can learn much from the Reluctant adopters, because many of them are reluctant to adopt mainstream technology because it doesn’t do what they need.


There is a second, much larger, group that does integrate some technology, tries some new and changing pedagogical strategies, and basically is self-supporting as a status quo. This majority adopts technology because it’s there, and looks to their peers for guidance on what to do, and how to do it. Again, this is not a bad thing. These people are experts in their fields, and they adopt “innovation” when it suits their needs. And they ignore the new shiny when it doesn’t solve an immediate problem. And that’s fine.


A third group, at the “high end” of the bell curve, explores new technologies, integrates them into their teaching, and tries emerging strategies to try to engage students. This group builds stuff, finds new stuff, and tries new things. The Shiny. They take risks. Which is great, but not everyone has the time, comfort level, or experience to do that. So we need to learn from this group, give them support to help them do the stuff they’d do anyway (but maybe do it more? do it better? do it more successfully?), and learn from that.

It’s tempting to focus on the Pioneers, because that’s where new ideas are usually introduced, but we need to focus on all three groups in order to effect real and sustained innovation across the university. We need to work with all three groups, learn from what they do (and what they don’t do), and then showcase successes to help everyone adopt things that will help them in their practices.

This is basically just another way to look at Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations double-S-curve. Ron Newmann presented a version of it at the 2013 LiFT Conference. They’re looking at how to identify new innovations, and track their adoption from 0-100%, rather than trying to help foster adoption of constellations of innovation across a population, as we’re doing at the university level.

I see our job with the technology integration group as being the green arrows in the diagram. We work with everyone, and help them to enhance the learning experience. We work with them to identify, support, and enable innovation and successful integration of appropriate technologies, and to push the state of the art of teaching. That’s how we can help support and sustain real innovation broadly across the entire university.

I keep coming back to the guiding statement our group came up with:

To enable innovation and creative integration of learning technologies to continuously enhance the learning experience.

This is why we do what we do. It isn’t about shiny tech. It’s about working with everyone to help them enhance learning.


2014 Week 42 in Review


The Coles™ Notes™ version: a super-short week that felt like a super-long one.

Thanksgiving. And 45.

Thanksgiving on Monday. And I turned 45 on Tuesday, and I took the day off because why not. We had a quiet family extra-long-weekend, and spent some time out in the Elbow Falls area. Wow, did the 2013 flood ever rampage that area.

Open Education

Picked up the plane ticket. Assuming air travel is still a thing next month, I’ll be in DC for Open Ed, and then Fredericksburg for the Reclaim thing on the weekend. Totally looking forward to both, and to reconnecting with the Open Ed crowd. It’s been far too long.

IT Partner

Not long ago, I was in the role of IT Business Partner. I gave that up when I moved into the new role in the EDU. The IT Partners have been working on strategic planning and figuring out the best way to cover all 14 faculties and various service departments, and we have an excellent partner working with us in the Taylor Institute. Looking forward to including Michael in as much of our activities as I can.

Learning Technologies blog

In our last team meeting, we realized that we needed a place that was:

  1. public
  2. outside the UofC domains so we could maintain an arms-length distance and write freely (and leave room for positive critique of campus technologies etc…)
  3. group-focused

I suggested setting up a Known site. And so I did. It’s still basically just “Hello World” but we will be u