Saturday, March 23, 2019

Audrey Watters and Getting Back into the Groove

So, I'm back home after a very long week in Austin (but a good week: more about my dad and his xylophone here)... and I did have the luxury of lots of reading time while traveling, especially on the way home with a long layover in DFW. Outbound, I read Cathy O'Neil's Weapons of Math Destruction, which was fantastic (more on that later), and then on the way home I found the perfect antidote to my blogging blues: I read all four volumes of Audrey Watters's MonstersThe Monsters of Education TechnologyThe Revenge of the Monsters of Education TechnologyThe Curse of the Monsters of Education Technology, and The Monsters of Education Technology 4. And WOW: that was exactly what I needed to read.

For those of you who haven't seen this series, for the past several years Audrey has curated and published a collection of her keynotes, covering a huge range of issues related to both education and technology. She also publishes the keynotes at her blog (with all the graphics too), but it's a very different experience to read them all together like this, especially all the books together, seeing her main themes develop in different ways while new themes also come into focus.

And a big dose of Audrey that was exactly what I needed to get back into the groove of blogging here. I spent the past two years doing my best to make a useful contribution to the Canvas Community, publishing a couple hundred blog posts there, along with developing various open Canvas resource-courses. I was persuaded to do that because Canvas, unlike D2L and Blackboard, has an open architecture with real URLs that allow people to open up their courses so that others can look and link (although, sadly, almost nobody does that; you can see my own courses at and and Canvas also makes it possible to use web technologies like RSS and javascript and iframe to bring external content into the Canvas system (so I built a Canvas Widget Warehouse full of javascripts for anyone to use, plus tutorials Twitter4Canvas, etc.).

Writing there at the Community, I really felt like I had a contribution to make, bringing what I had learned about open education practices to the community of people using Canvas (often required by their schools to use Canvas and nothing-but-Canvas), sharing my Canvas hacks and also learning from others at the Community. It's telling, I think, that Instructure does not use Canvas for this learning community because Canvas has no good community features, which has always been one of my complaints: even though Canvas does have some features that make it different from D2L and Blackboard, it is fundamentally a quizzing-and-grading system, and Instructure has devoted the lion's share of development resources over the past several years to the quizzes and gradebook. As a space for social learning, Canvas is terrible, and one of my big blogging projects at the Community was documenting how I use a blog network both for all the work my students create and share, and also for all the content that I develop. I've always said it was a big mistake for instructors to try to rely on the content development tools inside Canvas (the content tools are incredibly limited), and there are no real content development tools for students at all in Canvas, just the very tired, very old discussion board.

Despite the fact that I had made these criticisms of Canvas openly and often during my two years participating at the Community, my contributions were still welcome, and Instructure even brought me to the InstructureCon conference last summer as a kind of community booster, someone trying to help people connect with the network of learners using the Canvas Community space. But then, ten days ago, when I criticized the recent announcement by the new CEO Dan Goldsmith about the advent of AI, machine learning, and algorithms, the Community Managers decided that I had crossed a line, violating the rule that everything we post at the Community must be "uplifting" ... or else. That's why I'm now blogging here again after a long hiatus, and I posted a much more frank post about Goldsmith's vision for Instructure here at this blog: My Soylent-Green Moment: Instructure and the Future of Canvas.

So, as I was reading Audrey's books yesterday, this statement really jumped out at me — well, LOTS of statements jumped out at me, but this is what helped me frame what had happened to me at the Canvas Community and their rule of always-uplifting-all-the-time (bold emphasis is mine):
These are rarely topics addressed at education technology conferences; even the topics that might be most directly pertinent to the field – information security, institutional sustainability, for example – are brushed aside, in part I would argue, because education technology has worked quite hard to repress the trauma and anxiety associated with the adoption of new technologies and more broadly with the conditions, the precarity, of everyday life. Education technology has become so bound up in arguments about the necessity of technology, that it’s forgotten how to be anything other than the most loyal of servants to ideologies of machines, efficiencies, capitalism. It’s always sunny in education technology. Its tools are golden and transformative; its transformation, its disruption is always profitable and progressive. Better. Faster. Cheaper. Shinier.
You can read more at Audrey's blog; the quote is from this piece: Re·Con·Figures: The Pigeons of Ed-tech. And I highly recommend that you do read the whole thing; I think this is one of her very best pieces. 

So, I did my best to be sunny at the Canvas Community, contributing to the uplift, but at a certain point, there's just too much trade-off, too much compromise, too much important stuff that gets swept under the rug or shoved into the closet. It's time to talk about the trauma and anxiety, facing it honestly and figuring out what we can do to fight back. 

Stay tuned. :-)

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