Coercion and Online Communties

Looking at yesterday’s reply to Dave’s post with today’s eyes, it occurs to me that coercion and enforcement are trigger words for me.

Why? Because coercion is portrayed as something to be avoided. It’s portrayed as a flaw of the educational system.

Coercion can be ugly, but consider this: In democratic capitalism, it’s democracy that is the coercive element, and it is capitalism that is the free-to-be-you-and-me networked decision making component. The fact that one of the most prominent distributed decision making networks is in fact the market economy ends up providing a basis for a more nuanced discussion of coercion and enforcement.

Market economies are good because they preserve information and individual choice. It stands in distinction to a bunch of other options that tend to force decisions one way or another and erase minority opinion. Democracies take away the option to do these things. A democracy might say, for instance, that all cars must be sold with seat belts. Then through coercion and enforcement, the non-seatbelt option is eliminated and we lose that minority option. In doing so we lose some information about what consumers truly prefer and how much they will pay for it. We also save the lives of many people.

With seatbelts, resorting to coercion seems to make sense. With airbags and anti-lock brakes it’s less clear. At one time there were people who argued that leaving sub-prime loans to the market would increase options and access. I think now we wish the federal government would have used coercion to prevent people from engaging in such contracts.

This is not a new discussion. The United States was founded on principles of freedom and equality and self-government. It’s like most communities in that it turned out in very short order that its core values were more or less in constant conflict. Former Supreme Court Justice David Souter, in a speech worth a thousand TED talks nailed it when he said:

The “notion that all of constitutional law lies there in the Constitution waiting for a judge to read it fairly” is not only “simplistic,” he said; it “diminishes us” by failing to acknowledge that the Constitution is not just a set of aphorisms for the country to live by but a “pantheon of values” inevitably in tension with one another. The Supreme Court may serve no higher function than to help society resolve the “conflict between the good and the good,” he suggested:

A choice may have to be made, not because language is vague, but because the Constitution embodies the desire of the American people, like most people, to have things both ways. We want order and security, and we want liberty. And we want not only liberty but equality as well. These paired desires of ours can clash, and when they do a court is forced to choose between them, between one constitutional good and another one. The court has to decide which of our approved desires has the better claim, right here, right now, and a court has to do more than read fairly when it makes this kind of choice.

In other words, the “right” on the other side of coercion — which is roughly “freedom” — is not a first principle we reason from to a conclusion. It’s never a case that “The more freedom, the better”, or “as much freedom as possible”– because an increase in freedom leads to a decrease in other things the community holds dear.

So when we repeat that the key to our communities is they lack coercion or enforcement, we are, in the words of Souter “diminished”, because we fail to respect the organic complexities of the communities we actually serve. We fail the first test as community leaders, which is to realize that all communities are founded not on aphorisms or first principles, but on a pantheon of competing goods, competing goods that we, as community leaders, must adjudicate between from time to time.

That’s messy stuff, but it’s at the heart of what we do in politics. And I think it’s at the heart of what teaching is as well.

Teaching is the enforcement of norms, we should deal with that.

OK, I’m overstating it a little for effect. But I just read Dave’s post, and I have to take issue with this:

Assessing what someone ‘knows’ is an act of enforcement of a given point of view, not a(n apolotical) helpful guideline to learning

Education is a means of cultural transmission. And I think it can take many forms, everything from MOOCs to skill drills.

But there’s this weird resonance in that quote that somehow a cMOOC

a)  Is apolitical, and
b) Lacks enforcement of norms

and that seems wrong to me. Part of the reason people get involved with MOOCs and online communities of inquiry is, in fact, to learn from people what it is they “need to know”. They want to be acculturated!  Noobs, famously, don’t know what they need to know, and are promptly corrected by the community. And that correction is provided in the context of an internal power structure that the online community develops.

So you have hierarchical assessment, even in a MOOC. You don’t design it, you don’t map it out, you don’t credential it. But you might as well admit that in a Connectivism MOOC a comment by George on how he thinks you are getting Connectivism wrong is, at least from a functional perspective

a) hierarchical
b) formative assessment

And together the reactions to your contributions form the MOOC’s assessment. Why run from that?

Mean, Median, and Cutpoint Percentages?

My class is doing some projects on NH this fall, infographic things, like incidence of melanoma in NH. And one thing you have to do with such things of course is look at the state demographic profile — we’re #1 in melanoma in the country (per capita basis), but we’re also an elderly state in terms of demographics.

Or so I thought. It turns out that when we use the cutpoint of 65+ we’re actually the 37th most elderly state (2000 data):

So where’d I get the idea we were an elderly state? Because I keep hearing that in median age we’re in the top 10 “oldest” states in the . And we are — we’re number 7:

So what’s going on here? It’s obvious once you think about it — the median age is far more affected by the fertility rate, which varies state to state, is highly impacted by culture, and skews the distribution to the right. A lot of times this will line up with your cut-point elderly — Utah is the youngest state on a median basis because they have big families in Utah, and they also have a very small percentage of people over 65.

But in New Hampshire we have the lowest fertility rate in the country and a migration inflow that consists more of mid-career professionals than young adults. So that tends to reduce the expected population skew.

Cutpoint percentages are a really simple analytical tool, and like mean, median, and mode they can be expressed as single number summaries. For example: you can say things like 15% of the population is 65+, or that only 0.2% of undergraduates graduate with over $100,000 in debt. (By the way, you read that right, despite those student debt examples every newspaper article on the subject leads off with, the actual incidence that sort of thing is about 2 in 1,000. That’s about as representative of the graduate population as a 6 foot 6 inch tall male would be of the male population. Perhaps the reporters should also interview Kobe Bryant to find out what it’s like to be average height?).

In short cutpoint percentages are incredibly useful tools for quick and dirty analysis of a distribution, and they are used all the time in business and policy analysis. And given a cutpoint and a set of data they aren’t that much harder to compute than the median. So why aren’t we placing them next to mean, median, and mode in our student toolboxes?


True of EdTech as Well

There are more brilliant paragraphs in Morozov’s recent set of reviews than there are in most books, but this one stuck out in particular:

Given TED’s disproportionate influence on a certain level of the global debate, it follows that the public at large also becomes more approving of technological solutions to problems that are not technological but political. Problems of climate change become problems of making production more efficient or finding ways to colonize other planets—not of reaching political agreement on how to limit production or consume in a more sustainable fashion. Problems of health care become problems of inadequate self-monitoring and data-sharing. Problems of ensuring one’s privacy—which might otherwise get solved by pushing for new laws—become problems of inadequate tools for defending one’s anonymity online or selling access to one’s own data. (The Khannas are not alone in believing that “individuals [must] gain control over the value of their time, skills, data, and resources. We must be ruthless in earning from those who want our attention.”)

It is in the developing world where the limitations of TED’s techno-humanitarian mentality are most pronounced. In TED world, problems of aid and development are no longer seen as problems of weak and corrupt institutions; they are recast as problems of inadequate connectivity or an insufficiency of gadgets. According to the Khannas, “centuries of colonialism and decades of aid haven’t lifted Africa’s fortunes the way technology can.” Hence the latest urge to bombard Africa with tablets and Kindles—even when an average African kid would find it impossible to repair a damaged Kindle. And the gadgets do drop from the sky—Nicholas Negroponte, having spectacularly failed in his One Laptop Per Child quest, now wants to drop his own tablets from helicopters, which would make it harder for the African savages to say “no” to MIT’s (and TED’s) civilization. This is la mission civilatrice 2.0.

This is how Silicon Valley is destroying us, and how it is destroying education as well. And my point of departure from just about everybody is that even in the Corporate/Open-source debate we are still submerged in the idea that the solution is technology and not governance or laws or additional funding, but if we all adopt the right technologies we can avoid messy messy politics.  If Browser 1 is stealing your info and selling it to porn sites, your best personal option might be to go to Browser 2 or to buy additional software. Your best societal option is to make and enforce laws against stealing info. Getting those two things confused is a recipe for disaster, and it is what happens when a self-help culture collides with governance.

Lehrer’s Dylan, Information Literacy, and Van Halen’s Brown M&M’s

I don’t want to pile on Jonah Lehrer — if you want the low-down on what happened to the up-and-coming and now down-and-falling star of pop cognitive science, you can get your fix on the Google.

But I am interested in the lessons we can learn about information literacy from this, particularly because I think I failed personally to apply my own information literacy skills in the case of Lehrer. And from such things come great lessons.

What do I mean? When I read Lehrer’s Imagine, I didn’t know all of the topics Lehrer discussed at a level of detail — I’ve never worked at Pixar, I’m unfamiliar with modeling urban design, etc. But I did know one of the subjects quite well — Lehrer opens with a Dylan story, and I am a longstanding Dylan fan (Such a big fan that I actually read Bob Dylan’s unreadable Finnegan’s Wake like book Tarantula at one point. Yeah.)

Lehrer got some of the details on Dylan wrong, in the way that most people tend to get them wrong. To take just one example, people who aren’t terribly familiar with Dylan but know a bit tend to think that “Like a Rolling Stone” was a turning point in Dylan’s career. In fact, the shift to electric happens an album before that, and the vocal style of the of the song is pretty firmly ensconced in Dylan’s work before the electric change. As far as the lyrics, which is what Lehrer focuses on, that shift too comes much earlier — there’s a scene in Chronicles, Bob Dylan’s autobiography, where Dylan is watching a musical, and he realizes that one can essentially write musical theater without the theater. You can listen to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or “Maggie’s Farm” on Bringing It All Back Home, and hear how that works out — there’s that blues element, but there’s also this sense of dropping into a middle of a story, with so many references to external elements that our mind has to build a crazy surrealist backstory to it (What medicine, exactly, is Johnny mixing up anyway?).

So what “Like a Rolling Stone” is, really, is not a creative breakthrough, but it’s the point where Dylan turns all those dials up to eleven at once. Any serious study of Dylan will show you that.

Lehrer doesn’t see it that way, and shifts around some facts to make it the breakthrough moment lyrical moment he needs. And reading through the book I gave it to him — after all, it’s kind of a subtle point, right?

But here’s the thing — it’s not a point that he is making in a blog post or a conversation over beers. It’s not a slide in a conference presentation on a tangential matter. It’s a chapter in a published book.

Which brings me to Van Halen’s famous “bowl of M&M’s with the brown ones removed” rider. The request for this has been portrayed as rock star vanity, but it was far from that. Here’s why Van Halen requested this at all their gigs, from the rock star gigolo, David Lee Roth:

“Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We’d pull up with nine eighteen-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors — whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through.

“The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function. So just as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say “Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, evenly, providing nineteen amperes . . .” This kind of thing. And article number 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: “There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.”

“So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.”

To me, this is what most information literacy looks like. In non-academic life, you can’t check everything. You can’t check every reference, and redo every computation. You have to trust people most of the time. But when you find brown M&M’s in the green room, it’s time to freak out a bit. You either cancel the show, or you start checking everything you can.

The Dylan mistakes were the telltale M&M’s, and I should have known enough to stop there, and treat the book from that point on as a hostile witness. But I didn’t, and a lot of people didn’t. And pretty soon the stage was collapsing under  us.

These things matter, and when we find such things, we should take a lesson from the patron saint of Information Literacy, David Lee Roth. What did you do, David, when you found brown M&M’s in a green room in Pueblo?

“The folks in Pueblo, Colorado, at the university, took the contract rather kinda casual. They had one of these new rubberized bouncy basketball floorings in their arena. They hadn’t read the contract, and weren’t sure, really, about the weight of this production; this thing weighed like the business end of a 747.

“I came backstage. I found some brown M&M’s, I went into full Shakespearean ‘What is this before me?’ . . . you know, with the skull in one hand . . . and promptly trashed the dressing room. Dumped the buffet, kicked a hole in the door, twelve thousand dollars’ worth of fun.

“The staging sank through their floor. They didn’t bother to look at the weight requirements or anything, and this sank through their new flooring and did eighty thousand dollars’ worth of damage to the arena floor. The whole thing had to be replaced. It came out in the press that I discovered brown M&M’s and did eighty-five thousand dollars’ worth of damage to the backstage area.

“Well, who am I to get in the way of a good rumor?”

Now that’s what a critical consumer of information looks like.

Laptops and Class Attention

From a recent study reported in the Chronicle that used eye-tracking data to track time-on-task (defined as “as looking at the professor, at PowerPoint slides, or at notes, or talking to neighbors about a discussion question”).

Mr. Rosengrant hasn’t finished analyzing correlations between on-task behavior and demographic data. Over all, though, a student’s location in the classroom was an enormous factor affecting whether the student was on task, he said.

“The students who were in the front and center of the room really were on task much more than the students in the back of the room,” Mr. Rosengrant said. A variety of reasons account for that pattern, he said. Students at the sides of the room are more likely to have to crane their necks to see the board, which is tiring, while students at the back are often distracted by the visible computer screens of those sitting in front of them.

I’m moving in my own class to a more forceful laptop policy (laptops will be closed during class presentations and discussions, period) and the main reason is that in student evaluations (both informal and summative) the persistent student complaint I see is that I didn’t crack down hard enough on the Facebookers. Honestly. It is the students that are asking if we could please crack down on web use unrelated to class. And the reason they cite is that is is pretty darn hard to pay attention to class when so many people are web browsing.

This study suggests that those students might be right. Now certainly there’s a bit of reverse causality at work in this study — your best students might not sit at the back of the lecture hall to begin with. But put yourself in the shoes of a student that is in the back — she sees you and twenty or thirty computer screens in front her — computer screens that are doing all sorts of crazy things. LOLcats, animated GIFs, Facebook chats, Youtube videos.

There’s not really a world where this is an ideal environment for learning. And one thing that student in the back is paying for, most definitely, is an environment conducive to learning.

Diehard laptop policy anarchists will say — well, if your presentation is more boring than the internet, then maybe you’re the problem! To which I say — have you ever been on internet? If we’re asking professors now to be more interesting than browsing the internet we are going to have to radically adjust the pay scales….