Engagement = Coercion?

I started writing this in 2018, and I still struggle with the ideas that I’m trying to express with this idea. Ultimately I’m talking about the power structure in classrooms, or online environments and how those who are uncomfortable with those power structures can do very little with the environments themselves to dilute the power differential.

I’m often troubled by the term engagement. If attention to a thing is the most important commodity in modern capitalism, is engagement worth more than mere attention? We have seen with things like video games that attention is one thing, but engagement is a whole other metric. There’s an emotional component to engagement that isn’t there with mere attention.

And is engagement a coercion strategy? Are we asking students to become invested in something based on the value we think it will add to a student’s learning, even using marks as a lever to get students to do what we want them to do?

PAY ATTENTION!

I totally remember having that yelled at me. The lie that’s embedded in that line is that it’s missing the obvious – to what? In most cases, the missive should read “Pay attention to me!” No wonder I did so mediocre in school – I don’t really react well to that, and I think most of us don’t react well to that sort of pandering. That sort of coercive effort of attention grabbing never worked well for me. Maybe it’s the belief I hold that “good work gets noticed” and as I’ve gotten older I still think that’s true somewhat. But it might be 20 years later, after it’s made the rounds and the artist has died. Or the author. Or the creator. You see that on YouTube now, with someone putting out a video in early 2009, and it comes up in a search and it’s great. And has 234 views. You have a whole algorithm in the way of finding things organically now, and with no real way to control how you are served content (and that’s probably the google killer – having an adjustable algorithm that feeds you not only what you want but how you want) content creators that are successful aren’t successful because of their content per se, it’s that they know how to manipulate the algorithm to get you to see the content.

Which brings us back to metrics and measurements. Modern engagement metrics have shifted language such that really it’s attention, and not engagement, that they’re measuring. It literally took close to four years for me to figure out what bothered me about engagement metrics. Now I know it’s not about engaging with someone, it’s about getting them to pay attention to you. It explains a lot about why modern advertising methods are all about “engagement” which is theoretically deeper than “attention” – but the metrics they use (click-throughs, time on page) really don’t speak to engagement, as it does to attention.

Now when I’m talking about engagement in a classroom that’s likely different than engagement in an online environment – but engagement in an online environment is measured using the same methods that are about attention – which is a bit of a passé way to look at engagement in a classroom. Paying attention to a lecture is different than engaging with a lecture – and paying attention to a post in the LMS is different than engaging with a post in the LMS. Engaging is more associated with doing something in an educational context. So in many ways applying the common way of measuring engagement is not going to elicit much useful information in an educational context. Yet I still see people building courses in such a way to try and leverage attention, rather than engagement.

What do you think will engage people better? A well formed discussion question, or a lengthy video with interactive “engagement” in the form of questions? I would think that a well formed discussion question might linger longer in one’s mind.

Some Advice On How To Introduce Large Scale Systems

I began writing a draft of this after the place I worked at as we were decommissioning one of our institution-wide systems and thought about the other side of the process, onboarding systems. Of course, the end of the line is a natural place to do some reflection. I won’t dig too deep into the specifics of each (that would require a beer or two to lubricate the wheels) – but I’ve been parts of teams that introduced (cumulatively) 10 new organization-wide systems over the last two decades, across three education institutions. I’ve also been part of decommissioning upwards of 15 or 16 different organization-wide systems. It’s a skill I’ve developed.


So where to start with tips? Use the vendor. They are still looking to impress you, so make sure you use their implementation process. Make sure you take advantage of every single opportunity to get to know them, how they think. As an administrator on a system, it really helps to understand the assumptions they’ve made to get to the decisions they made about designing the system. Attend their promo webinars, read almost anything you can about the system.

Talk to others who use the system. The vendor will likely give you someone who loves the system and they’re useful, but look at the list on their website of institutions and cold-call. Work your network. Search Twitter. Look for who replies to their tweets/social media and see if they are actually using the system. Yes, it’s detective work, but it’ll likely show you what you’re in for when you actually get the system stood up. This forms an informal community of people you can reach out to when the vendor doesn’t understand your questions, or when you don’t want to ask the vendor.

Get stakeholders involved early. Get Equity and Inclusion involved before you sign anything. Get accessibility and privacy involved before you sign anything. Don’t be a bungler who buys a thing, and then talks to the Privacy Office and Equity. Make it part of your purchasing process (even if it’s not required). Equity and Inclusion has an opinion about tech, especially in light of the millions of whitewashed claims out there about AI and all sorts of stuff. Even more innocuous stuff about language choices – where we can help make things more equitable easily. Having those voices at the table are, in my opinion, crucial.

Plan out you transition and add time to that plan. My rule of thumb is times everything by 1.5. If you can afford to, triple the time. You know it’s not going to go smooth. For a transition – remember you’re doing double work – decommissioning one system while onboarding another – that requires people to do work while you’re occupied.

STORY TIME!

When we did a system switch, the vendor was in the middle of a major overhaul of the system and we had a month to onboard and get people going. The onboarding and late adoption cost 40 hours overtime (including working on a holiday at 2.5 times pay) and something like 100 lieu hours. It would have been helpful to draw out the five-year plan (even if the contract was three years) and identify over the next five years, who’s doing what. Who’s job is it to be promoting this tool? What’s the communication plan for expressing the value of the tool? Who does that? You don’t have to set metrics to achieve – but you should expect early growth and adoption, then settling. What does that look like? Say you start with 15 courses using a tool, who supports that tool? What happens if they get sick? Leave the institution? Lay all that stuff out in writing. The person that gets sick or leaves might be you. Ambiguity at this point is a death screetch heard across the heavens. It kills buy-in and confidence in the long-term support of the thing. If it’s only a short-term solution, that’s fine, make sure folks know so that they aren’t envisioning a long-term solution on something that is going away next week.

The next time the team negotiating the contract (this time for web conferencing) took all the time and left us a month to implement and switch. We did it, but the money saved was eaten up by overtime and lieu time. I swore I would never do that again. The very next time they gave us less…. and it ended up costing more. So now, I know when contracts are up and I’m asking a year (or more) in advance things like “are we renewing?” Of course, I have bosses that ask me about this sort of stuff now, and I have some influence… but not everyone is so lucky. To that end, sometimes there are things you cannot control. Be honest with your users about where the issue is – even if it’s with you. If you’re within six months of the end of the contract and folks are talking about pulling the plug, make sure you’re getting extra people to manage the transition. I work with bona fide rockstars. As a group we can do pretty much everything in whatever ridiculous timeframe you can do. However, there’s a functional limit. As a lead, I know what our functional limit is, and it’s my job to make sure my bosses are aware of how close we are to functional limits.

Lastly, make sure your ebullient supporters are tamped down a bit. Let them know, you love their enthusiasm, but not everyone is on the same page. It can be offputting to have ardent followers of a tech solution be cheerleading in the face of skeptics. All that does is create a divisive atmosphere that doesn’t end up helping anyone.

D2L’s Rebrand

Gosh, this makes a system that had some good vibes feel look stodgy and old. So much so, I wrote (maybe my first intentional) Twitter thread about it a couple weeks ago.

Basically, my argument is that while I understand the need to rebrand from time to time, I’m going to suggest the IPO and going public aspect of D2L’s recent offerings lead me to believe a couple of things. I don’t have any insider information as most of the handful of people who I knew on the inside of D2L have left in the last few years. The ones that remain have been tight-lipped if they do know, so take this speculation for what it is – pure speculation.

It looks, from my higher education perspective that the LMS market is kind of saturated. Most large and small institutions have one, have had one for years, and are kind of settled. Yes there’s still Blackboard losing clients at a rapid rate, and Canvas and Brightspace picking up users. So it’s not a stagnant market for any reason, but it is, let’s say, mature. This maturity will start to let the LMS folks look for other potential markets for their products – and D2L has been looking at the workforce/corporate for quite a few years. At the last few Fusions I attended (Orlando, Florida (2019?) was the last in-person, and I presented with my colleague Katrina Espanol-Miller in 2020), there was significant highlights from corporate clients. Half a dozen people I met after the discussion l led on data, almost half of them were corporate clients of D2L. In informal chats in the hall, I met at least four or five people who were, you guessed it, corporate clients or prospective clients. That was 2019. I’m sure, three years later, they’ve made more in-roads.

So to say they’re trying to make in-roads with corporate clients is not a high-risk statement.

This re-brand shows that. They’ve gone from a very education feel, to a corporate feel. I did a quick trends search for corporate branding in 2022 and found a decent Forbes article (where if it’s not true, it likely will become fact because of the trust that Forbes engenders): https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2021/12/14/eight-branding-and-design-trends-to-follow-in-2022/ – and the D2L rebrand coincidentally ticks off a lot of these boxes. Retro/Throwback Design? Yes. This looks like Blackboard did in the early 2000’s. Bold but muted colors? Yes, gone is the bold orange, in favour of slate grey and accents of colors. Some of the other trends: online communities and platforms? Yep, that’s built-in with Community and the Product Idea Exchange. Hybrid Events? They’ve been doing webinars since I can remember. In fact I remember them using Adobe Connect way back when… Purpose-Driven Campaigns? I suspect some of the subtleties in the design will be the connections there.

I frankly don’t think this moves the needle, and my outrage is more along the lines of “you’ve taken something decent and made it ugly”. And I should own up to my own preferences, which is that I honestly liked the previous designs, and incremental changes they made. As goofy as the moose is, it seemed like an organic thing that developed from the customer base actually liking it – and the D2L amplified it. That’s good customer relationships. To ditch that is akin to farting in an elevator and getting off at the next floor. Yeah, the stink is temporary, but it’s pretty unpleasant for those who wanted to ride in the elevator.

D2L has a bit of history of unveiling changes – in 2014, they shifted from Learning Environment to Brightspace. I was among the folks who were in person at Fusion, and thought Brightspace? People will shorten it to BS! Thanks D2L, now us folks supporting it will have snarky opportunities. That didn’t come to pass and thankfully they were right in that they could get ahead of it. However, there’s still snarky folks (hey, no, don’t show me that mirror!) that bring it up from time to time. It was one of those things that were fine and didn’t need change – but turned out to be inconsequential in the grand scheme, but still obfuscates what the product does. Much like their current strategy of D2L Brightspace and D2L Wave. What is the difference between the two products? Oh, don’t bother leaving a comment below on what the difference between the two are, I get that Brightspace is aimed at the education sector and Wave is aimed at corporate. The point is though, I shouldn’t have to go look it up (and read the copy) – the name isn’t synonymous with learning environment, or integrated learning platform, or LMS or VLE, and it just creates a barrier to understanding at a glance. I guess that creates “engagement” with a customer?

I do like D2L as a company, and the majority of people at the company I’ve interacted with over the last 13-14 years have been decent, caring and for the most part forthright. Although these signals are a bit concerning – if we start to see prioritization of corporate clients over higher education needs, what does that mean for existing clients in the higher education sector? I don’t want training level tracking in higher ed. I want students to be able to add content easily (as I have asked for YEARS). I want peer review baked into the assignments and groups tool. I want quizzing to allow uploaded files. I suspect that corporate needs don’t reflect those desires. Hopefully D2L can satisfy both needs.

Hello World.

I’m back for a spell. Lots of news, and things have sure changed a lot in the last 3 years. I’ve changed a lot. Oh, I’m still frustrated with EdTech, angry at the world, confused like most of you, about what the hell is going on. But I figure it’s time to go public and write this down again as I’ve got some burning things to say.

So, what’s new work wise? Well, I got promoted. I’m not so naive to think I did it entirely on merit, I had, and have, some great allies who believe that I can be a “Lead Learning Technologist”. I know I will struggle with elements of the job, which have some oversight duties – but it’s the sort of job I’ve been working for my whole career. I don’t know if putting an anarchist in charge of things is the safest move, but I’m proud to inhabit the role and defend my colleagues on my team fiercely. I had given up frankly and was settling into the idea that maybe just doing what I was doing would be OK.

But you don’t have a degree, right? Well I do now. And I’m in UBC’s Master of Education Technology program. I was really proud of working at a university without a degree. I got hired because of references, and experience (and the right place at the right time). The degree was underway since 2009, some of the posts here will reflect that. I finished in 2018. I thought I don’t want to do more. I’m not convinced I’m in the right program, but I’m going to make it work as best I can. There’s so many times where I hold back commentary so I’m not the dude who’s always droning on about being in an early MOOC or remembering pre-web 2.0, never mind hand writing HTML in 1997.

What about that music writing podcast thing? It was fun. I’m sad it didn’t really take off. Two years seemed to be as much as I could wring out of myself and I killed it at the beginning of the pandemic. No one cared, so you shouldn’t either.

Other stuff? I didn’t talk about family here, but my son moved out with his husband. My dog died in November. We rescued a new (older) dog in December. My wife, Kate is coping with me being home, and has taken up drums and pottery. My mom, Laurel Kruithof (nee Moverley) died in January 2019. My dad, Johannis Kruithof, died weeks after we buried my mom’s remains in June 2019. My parents and I were never close, but the loss feels heavy sometimes. Not overwhelming like some people experience, but heavy. I don’t want people to say I’m sorry. Don’t sweat it. It’s three years later. I spent most of the winter of 2019 trying to find some Dutch relatives to tell them their estranged brother had died, but no luck. I guess weird family dynamics run in the family. Someday we’ll get to travel again safely and I’ll get to the Netherlands to see what it is like.

So, EdTech is even more full of charlatans and tricksters than ever before, eh? I have got some stories for you. Hope you find them helpful. That’s my plan for the future. For now. I’ll try not to temper my snark and lose my job in the process.

AirDroid

I’d been looking for an app to mirror my Android phone screen to my Windows 10 computers, and after clicking around, and reading a bit, I found AirDroid. Originally the search was to mirror a older Nexus 5 phone (with no active SIM card) with Kodi installed, to a Roku, but scope creep, you know? I will say that it also popped up in a webinar that Barry Dahl was running too, and that prompted me to revisit it after downloading and letting it languish amongst all the other apps on my phone.

So the app on the Android side is constantly running, which can tax the battery a bit. It would be nice to not have a constant notification that AirDroid is running… but for free, it’s a good enough trade off. The Windows side of things are decent, but again, a little clunky to get it to do what I want. If I mirror, and then close the app (it’s still running in the background, by the way) there’s no way to restart the mirror without essentially opening the program again, to receive an error that the program is already running… again, for free, it’s good, but not super elegant.

Why am I doing this? Well, I’ve been asked about Brightspace Pulse a couple of times, and needed to demonstrate it to a group of students. It’s the sort of thing that I thought wouldn’t need introductions, but apparently, does. I’m surprised, because at last count, there was only 3% usage of the app at my institution. Hopefully the outreach we’ve been doing encourages students to try out the app and see if it’s for them. Actually, we need to encourage faculty to put in start and end dates for stuff as well… but all in good time.

Is Everyone an Instructional Designer?

This is a re-post of writing that appeared here: https://idigontario.ca/2018/10/28/is-everyone-an-instructional-designer/ as part of the 9x9x25 challenge. Admittedly, I’m not an Instructional Designer, but I am. Here’s the post:

Am I an instructional designer? I work in educational technology, talk to people about using tools and help people design better learning, but does that make me an instructional designer? Educational technology is a place that can often drive pedagogical change, and it’s strange how often it goes unacknowledged as an accomplice in converting people to better pedagogy. How often do you as an instructional designer have a conversation about a piece of technology that forces the person you’re working with to rethink what they’re doing, and how they’re doing it? It may not be the great revelatory exclamation of “Oh my, this is going to change my life!” – but sometimes drastically, sometimes subtly, a change is made.

EdTech forces change.

It’s change that is opted into, by selecting the tool or technology, but it is change nonetheless. I can hear the counter arguments; “that’s not change, it’s choice!” I’d counter, that it’s a choice to change. Often in the adoption of a new tool, you have an opportunity to make large scale changes; most people don’t do that, but they make a smaller, incremental change. Sometimes change stops there. Sometimes, it pushes further, changing assessment strategies, approaches to instruction, facilitation techniques. That’s where you (or I) are able to help.

My role has been traditionally to help people with the how of things; how to set up a gradebook in the LMS, how to use classroom response tools to do things in the classroom – and early on I realized that lots of people really were looking for how-to, but never thought much about the why they were doing things. Sometimes the answer to why was simply, “the department asked me to go online” – but the people who did think about the why ended up much more satisfied. Looking to help in a more productive way I’ve become somewhat annoying in consultations, asking things like “why are you doing this?” and “what do you hope to accomplish with this change?” Those questions are less about technical details, and more about design of learning. It’s been interesting to note how instructional design intersects with media development, technical support, systems administration and of course, teaching. Each of those intersections can be opportunities to talk about how that particular learning experience can be improved. Creating a video? Why, what can that help you accomplish? The questions open up a rich conversation filled with the proverbial box of chocolates. In some ways, that make me, a (looking at my work badge) Learning Technologies Analyst, an Instructional Designer.

It’s unfortunate, that I didn’t know that until six or seven years ago. Honestly, it would’ve made my early career make a lot more sense. So those of you who are working in educational technology, supporting the use of a tool and putting in tickets to bug vendors to fix things, you might be an Instructional Designer.

Jon Kruithof is a Learning Technologies Analyst at McMaster University

What’s New?

Well, another semester start, and still the tickets pour in. Another season’s change and change is in the air. The department I’m in has gone through a self-study, and the results suggest that we’re not great at communicating and we need a strategy. Those are good suggestions and things we can enact. In other news, I’ve decided to apply to begin my Master’s, more on that when I’m accepted. I’m also a part of the Open Education Ontario cohort of Open Rangers, which is exciting and a touch scary. Maybe not scary, but I’m such a novice at open, even though I’m wholeheartedly behind the idea of open.

I think I’ll start blogging again, at least intermittently. There’s so much good going on right now, oh wait…. well not politically. But education is in a place that can really help with some of the struggles online right now.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my own head struggling with what I want to do with my life. I have felt trapped, unchallenged and basically in a rut. I couldn’t do what I’ve done in the past, quit and find something else, because I’ve been the primary bread winner and you know, wanted to keep a house and eating. I’m also 45 in a couple weeks, and that’s weighing heavily on me as well. So instead of trying to start something exciting and new with a significant impact on my life, I decided to stay and try to do something. Admittedly, there’s been some things that have made an pathway forward available, but I don’t want to say more in case the powers that be go in a different direction. Needless to say, if things work out, I’ll be challenged. I also think I’m ready for that challenge.

Oh, I started a music blog and podcast called General Admission. It’s only a monthly thing as a “creative” outlet (which involves buying media toys like lavalier microphones and podcast hosting) that really talks about punk primarily. If you only want to sample the best, check out Podcast #2, which talks about a similar riff throughout several different genres of music.  I hope to get to that level of thought and interest for every episode, but admittedly, if you’re not as into the New Bomb Turks, or The Dicks (forthcoming episode) then you might find that not every episode is to your liking.

I’m Not Dead

Life is really, really busy, and I’ve neglected the blog. I apologize to myself, mostly, because that’s what this is for. I’ve been hit with a bit of malaise, a bit of wanderlust, and well the doldrums of the work EdTech workers do – which can be somewhat satisfying, but unchallenging. I haven’t been asked to think or be creative in a long while, and that’s a bit taxing.

I thought that EdTech was something that I still wanted to do, but I’ve realized it’s just the job I have. And that’s OK. I keep telling myself that anyways. But more and more, EdTech is not OK. We’re beholden to someone else’s due diligence, someone else’s decisions, and someone else’s fuckups.

I’ve been an EdTech worker for 15 years, and probably will be one for many many more (such is the way society is currently structured). Maybe this doesn’t need to be written. But I’m in a spot where I can’t advance, and there’s no specific career path. There’s nothing up, or forward. There just is. I had ambitions; I still have ambitions periodically, but I can’t see a way to achieve them.

I’m faced with the reality that maybe this isn’t what I wanted.

When I started it was just after the gold rush – with education moving resources online, on websites, and yeah, into portal sites. There was a freedom, because none of the problems were solved. None of the solutions standardized. Systems were malleable, and could be broken in the most beautiful ways. Every challenge had some sweat and maybe tears before it was solved.

It was really beautiful because it was human. Now, things are so homogenous, and so bland in EdTech.

So I’ve taken my creativity elsewhere, and some of my thinking too. That’s why I can’t be bothered to write about the drudgery of administration of systems. Or EdTech in general.

Dead Drop no. 3

More Bots

http://pushpullfork.com/2017/09/botnet-cometh/

I’m following the public facing war between disinformation and the public. Yes, this is not a conspiracy theory, but an actual war, on social networks, aided and abetted by profiteering conspiracy theorists who want to make millions (in some cases) off paranoia. It’s fascinating because it really means the end of being online as a non-combat participant. Everyone is involved in this.

https://moz.com/blog/chat-bot

https://tutorials.botsfloor.com/opensource-ai-chat-bot-framework-with-natural-language-understanding-and-conversational-abilities-7c6b71e2c461

One of the important aspects of successful bots are the natural chat sophistication. Mapping conversations is part of that. Also, this open sourced framework for conversation construction is going to be extremely helpful.

https://booking.design/7-things-you-need-to-know-about-designing-a-chat-bot-4f07886d3fd0

Amazing how Medium is taking over from where WordPress used to dominate. More tips about chatbot design. Really interesting stuff here, some of it straight forward and obvious, but I really dig reading about how other people made decisions.

https://github.com/google/bottery

Google’s chat engine/bot framework.

Dead Drop no.2

A second hodgepodge of things I’ve found on the Internet.

How to Build a Twitter Bot

http://www.zachwhalen.net/posts/how-to-make-a-twitter-bot-with-google-spreadsheets-version-04/

https://www.labnol.org/internet/write-twitter-bot/27902/

https://www.fastcompany.com/3031500/how-twitter-bots-fool-you-into-thinking-they-are-real-people

The third article is the most interesting because it’s from 2014 (remember Klout scores?) and really shows how little (and how much) has changed in the Twitter bot universe. Essentially the heart of the strategy is the same, but mixed with a way to learn (through AI, or natural language processing which is clearly being done at some more sophisticated campaigns) and adapt depending on where we are, I suspect that we are on the cusp of what the future looks like when everyone you meet online could not actually be a person. My Philip K. Dick collection became a lot less sci-fi and more prescient.

More Bots (Cisco Spark/Microsoft Teams):

https://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-teams/botsconversation

https://developer.ciscospark.com/bots.html

Both Cisco Spark and Microsoft Teams are available where I work. Both have vague collaboration mandates, both can be used for communication. At this point, Spark might be more advanced with third party enhancements and bots. Teams might end up being the platform of choice if students are involved. I’m hoping to build a chatbot to handle common sorts of requests that our LMS support team get (ie. the stuff we have a predefined reply in our ticketing system, which isn’t attended to after 4:30 PM).

Natural Language Processing:

https://research.google.com/pubs/NaturalLanguageProcessing.html

https://medium.com/@jrodthoughts/ambiguity-in-natural-language-processing-part-ii-disambiguation-fc165e76a679

https://chatbotsmagazine.com/the-problem-with-chatbots-how-to-make-them-more-human-d7a24c22f51e

Natural language is key for the chatbot above, and of course the first attempt will be ruthlessly primitive I’m sure.

Chatbots in General:

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/sep/18/chatbots-talk-town-interact-humans-technology-silicon-valley