Humans vs. tech: Reflections on #et4online

Let me start with the ending. I left the Online Learning Consortium’s 8th Annual Emerging Technologies Symposium inspired.

But I was also struck by a game at play that has been going on forever. It was tiring – exhausting really – to see this game played out again. And frustrating.

Humans vs. tech. Or more precisely, technical solutions vs. emergent, adaptive, messy, social, human solutions. I am likely seeing this as a “game” while under the influence of the good folks at TvsZ (the Twitter-based game formerly known as Twitter vs. Zombies). My conference experience started and ended with sessions that unpacked this emergent, adaptive, messy, social and human online game experience.

As I reflect on the past few days – a conference sandwich built between two slices of TvsZ bread – I am struck how the lessons of the emergent rules of TvsZ may be a way to reframe this human vs. tech game. On the final day of the conference the TvsZ organizers shared a video history of the game by Janine DeBaise. It’s worth watching to understand co-creation and evolution of a concept.

A key point in the evolution of the game is adoption of the idea of “the spirit of the game” (borrowed from Ultimate Frisbee). Meaning: The game is self-officiated. New rules may emerge (and they do) and players expect to be called out on adherence to the rules (and they are) but it is all done under the participants’ sense of the spirit of the game.

So my reflective questions: Do conferences such as #et4online allow self-officiating of the game – or do they force an either/or human vs. tech rule set? And do we, as participants, have a clear enough sense of “the spirit of the game” of learning and tech to self-officiate?

The rules of the human vs. tech game suggest that you play in one of two camps. You’re a tech entrepreneur or edtech enthusiast who creates or uses a tool to solve a problem that you barely understand (and in some cases I am kind by saying “barely”). Or you play in the human camp. People are messy, tools are tools, humanity is at risk unless we pay attention, but when we do we create amazing moments.

This in-game dialogue came out most clearly in Teacher Tank, a take-off on the show Shark Tank. In the conference version, edtech leaders who were also showcasing their companies in the conference exhibit hall pitched their companies to a panel of three of the sharpest minds I know of in the world of tech and learning: George Siemens, Bonnie Stewart and Tanya Joosten.

I have to admit: The session was entertaining. And therapeutic. What George, Bonnie and Tanya said to the five tech presenters who pitched their solutions is what I always think, but often don’t say, as I wander through every tech vendor exhibit hall I’ve ever been through: “What the fuck were you thinking?” Followed closely by: “Would you also be kind enough to give me $50K of your funding (because I can certainly put it to better use)?”

Teacher Tank provided the forum that put the game into high-def. But it played out throughout the conference in several ways.

The three keynote speakers are exemplary voices on the messy, human side of the game: Mimi Ito, Bonnie Stewart and Gardner Campbell. Ito’s work in connected learning and connected courses; Stewart’s work on connected scholars and identity; and Campbell’s story of his collaboration in an innovative connectivist MOOC all land squarely on the side of inspiration to adhere to the spirit of a more human game. And if you are keeping score by who stands on the keynote podium: It’s humans 3, tech 0.

I saw the tech voice more dominant in a selection of the concurrent sessions. Some (which I did not attend) were to my eye technology pitches disguised as conference sessions. Maybe I was wrong. I doubt it.

But I also found myself reacting and being aware of the tech-first mindset in sessions where I was interested in hearing about topics of interest to me. A session on predictive analytics focused on solutions that put all the good stuff into the hands of university administration. Subtle message here: If faculty and staff have better data, we can “do” something to students and help them. The goal of helping at risk students is laudable. But it’s an overly technical solution to a messy problem. Where is the conversation about how we actually put really powerful apps into the hands of students? And by doing so, learn how to facilitate their capability to learn how to learn – and to let them tell us more about how we’re doing on that goal? Maybe I am naive here. Or missed something. But that didn’t seem to be on the radar of anyone in the room.

I participated in a couple of other sessions where the conversation kept being pulled back into tool-talk, a sure sign to me of a tech-solution bias (e.g., we just need to learn the tools and we’ll all be better). For example. A session on establishing “teaching presence” netted out to this: “Teachers” can use text, audio or video to establish presence. Holy shit. (Insert audio and video version of me saying “holy shit” here just to show that I learned something).

Onto more inspirational notes.

I was inspired by the stories told by Adam Croom at the University of Oklahoma and Chris Mattia at California State University Channel Islands and their work using the domain of one’s own concept. OU Create and CI Keys put digital tools and control of them into the hands of students with the purpose of facilitating exploration, creativity and learning. Not doing tech to them. Doing tech for them. Love this. I am inspired to find a path to doing this in my own work.

I was inspired also by meeting a number of people I’ve come to know on Twitter and through blogs and writing. Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris of Hybrid Pedagogy and a host of other adventures. The TvsZ crew: Pete Rorabaugh, Christina Hendricks, J.R. Dingwall, Andrea Rehn and the amazingly ever-present-even-when-she’s-a-world-away Maha Bali. Thanks to all of you for continuing to be, in Mimi Ito’s sense, my #learninghero.

Which brings me back to my reflection questions: Do conferences such as #et4online allow self-officiating the game – or do they force an either/or human vs. tech rule set? And do we, as participants, have a clear enough sense of “the spirit of the game” of learning and tech to self-officiate?

I had a brief conversation with Jesse Stommel after Teacher Tank. While I was still enjoying the verbal spanking dished out by the panelists, Jesse noted that one in particular seemed to have the right voice. That style of bluntness that changes the conversation rather than beating it into submission.

I think he’s right. The spirit of the game in learning and tech needs to be more about finding that proper voice. I don’t think #et4online got it exactly right. But it wasn’t exactly wrong, either. You could find paths – as I did – to find the both/and. The affordances of technology can and do help us find new ways to explore the emergent, adaptive, messy, social, human side of learning. But that’s a real complex challenge requiring critical thinking on all sides. Sign me up for any conference that self-officiates that dialogue.

3 thoughts on “Humans vs. tech: Reflections on #et4online

  1. Wow, do I love this post or what! Aside from you liking everyone in the world that I like, I think you summed up a lot of what is wrong (and the emerging hope as well) in the #edtech world, and you highlighted it so clearly in this one conference. Great reflections and thanks for sharing!
    Just before the conf began I had been invited to talk to an edtech company here in Egypt. On one hand I wanted them to know what mattered to me as an educator w E-learning expertise; but i also did not want to be condescending and overly academic. I think the main problem may be lack of sustained conversations/communication between ed and tech where the tech truly listens and understands (and no, i am not asking the academics /Educators to listen)

    I think yday’s #digped convo and the upcoming DigPedLab in U Wisconsin-Madison might be the place you’re looking for. Did you hear about it from Jesse and Sean?

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  2. Thanks Maha. I think you are onto something about the sustained conversations between ed and tech. I’ve had very similar conversations with other people I know – one of whom is a tech entrepreneur and product consultant. She totally gets it. There is a real lack of understanding about the practice of teaching and learning.

    I think one of my goals is to work on finding ways to have those ed and tech conversations more often and more productively. If I rant, it’s because I care. And want to be part of doing things differently.


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