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Intentional Cognitive Friction

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The sweetness and delights of the resting-place are in proportion to the pain endured on the Journey. Only when you suffer the pangs and tribulations of exile will you truly enjoy your homecoming. (The Mathnawi of Jalaluddin Rumi – Book 3)

John Johnston started to talk about ‘clunky-ness’ in technology as a way into digital mindfulness. Recently, on our radio show, we discussed the idea of friction in technology as potentially a way to develop digital skills that may be being lost in the ‘Generator Generation’ as they rely more and more on technology ‘creating’ for them.

I have also been following D’Arcy Norman’s quest to find space away from social media. He seems  to also have discovered the value of ‘clunky-ness’ and the tyranny of convenience.  He also speaks of adding friction as valuable,

“I’ve deleted the Twitter apps from my devices, and now if I want to check in I have to use the browser. Not having notifications or easy launching of a stream adds a bit of friction. I also have 2-factor authentication enabled, and logout after checking in, so dropping into twitter is deliberately kind of a pain in the ass.”

How is he finding this ‘pain in the ass’ valuable?  “I find I’m thinking with less snark. I’m being less sarcastic in general. And I think that has something to do with withdrawing from the hot-take snark-and-sarcasm streams on social media.” Friction accessing social media, just making it more clunky, is allowing him to be more intentional and clearing his head of unnecessary stimuli. Interestingly, we also featured the ‘Space’ app on the Daily Stillness recently. What does it do? It makes accessing apps you use without intention a pain in the ass! From the blurb: “It loads a Moment of Zen before the apps you want space from. That re-wires your brain and helps you take back control of your habit. Because you don’t really want to dump your favourite apps: you just need Space.”

So, Cody De Haan adds further to the above, building in inefficiency is exactly the point:

Now when I pick up my phone, I see essentially a blank slate. This means that instead of seeing a bunch of triggers for distractions, I wind up pausing for a moment to think about what I’m doing. Often I lock my phone again and set it back down, realising that I was just in an avoidant state or trying to distract myself from what I really want to be doing. […] I think the slight delay in typing the app name I’m looking for is balanced out by the time I save not mindlessly scrolling through my apps.

So, I got curious. It seems we are (re)discovering something that has been part of many a spiritual tradition for a long time. The Rumi poem at the start of this post a beautiful example of the way in which ‘clunky-ness’ in life can bring sweetness and delight. I wondered where the notion of friction came from, I wondered why people felt more comfortable with ‘friction’ than ‘relinquishment’ or ‘abstinence’ or plain old ‘difficulty’. The renunciant’s path is alive and well in  monastic life with the taking of vows to renounce the comfortable life. When I did a 3 year retreat, I did not warm to renunciation straight away, I preferred it when my abbot told me to ‘practice sense-restraint’ – it seemed less antiquated and somehow more doable!

Maybe this is what is going on with friction; adding friction to your life, does feel more modern than giving up creature comforts. Yet, popular culture really gets the inevitable end point of the ‘frictionless life’. Have you seen Wall-e and its fat people? A favourite book by David Whiteland summed it up well back in 2000,

‘You should never underestimate the power of comfort. To our everlasting discredit, we owe our utter dependency on technology to our inability to resist it.’

My search led me to cognitive friction. Alan Cooper coined the term in 1999 and defined it as:  “the resistance encountered by a human intellect when it engages with a complex system of rules.” If cues don’t match our expectations, we experience cognitive friction. Avoiding cognitive friction in UI design has been a design mantra in software design at least since the term was coined if not before. We get frustrated when interfaces don’t function seamlessly, and the aim is always to overcome cognitive friction in software. Of course, the flip side of the lack of friction is that we build unconscious habit and let our fingers do the walking, as we open Twitter for the Nth time in an hour without ever intending to…and stay there catching up with nothing.

I searched for the benefits of cognitive friction in health and well being, and could find very little on the google, a potential PhD for somebody scanning for research ideas? John and D’Arcy offer first person inquiry into how their mental wellbeing is benefitting by building friction into their interaction with software. The Space app benefits from our emerging ability to see value in friction – generally we call it a pain in the ass and want it gone, we want instant gratification…except sometimes.

Here at the Still Web, we have worked with the idea of challenging comfort and creating friction as offering a way out of that monkey mind since we set up the web site. Comfort is a lie or at least it is not something we should keep on pursuing uncritically as a society.

Creating friction intentionally maybe something we can sign up to more easily than relinquishing comfort and ease; and maybe becoming a consideration in software design going forward, as shown by our Space App example above.

May be those monastics through the ages telling us to sit with discomfort, relinquish comfort and become renunciants to gain enlightenment do still have something to teach us as we add a little intentional friction into our work flows. Buddhists monks know that  ‘renunciation is a skill’,

“Buddhism takes a familiar American principle — the pursuit of happiness — and inserts two important qualifiers. The happiness it aims at is true: ultimate, unchanging, and undeceitful. Its pursuit of that happiness is serious, not in a grim sense, but dedicated, disciplined, and willing to make intelligent sacrifices. What sort of sacrifices are intelligent? The Buddhist answer to this question resonates with another American principle: an intelligent sacrifice is any in which you gain a greater happiness by letting go of a lesser one, in the same way you’d give up a bag of candy if offered a pound of gold in exchange. In other words, an intelligent sacrifice is like a profitable trade.”

Maybe intentional friction will lead us to ‘the pot of gold’ of equanimity as we face our modern busy lives. I am reminded of my reading of McLuhan. What does the frictionless life flip into when pushed to its limits? Intentional Cognitive Friction, maybe?

“Too much of anything, however sweet, will bring the opposite of whatever you thought you were getting. One becomes many, many become one. You start out a consumer and you end up consumed. The trick is to recognise the pattern before it is complete.”

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20 days ago
Friction and intentionality are important in our current easy-constant-content-streams…
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21 days ago
Kill Bill vol. 3
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LMS Dogma

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I mentioned in my last post that I recently was invited to talk to a group of students in Eddie Maloney’s Technology Innovation by Design course. This group are the pioneers of Georgetown’s new Masters program in Learning and Design. I was asked to talk about something, and I proposed a few things:

A Brief History of Learning Management Systems: I would take a course period to frame 20 years of Learning Management Systems and what they have meant to the field of educational technology in higher education. It would be a fun way for me to integrate the core principals of your program through the lens of the predominant systems we use to manage learning in Higher Ed. I like this cause it frames how we understand learning design, where we capture analytics, what passes for innovation, and how leadership understands all these things. The LMS is a perfect refraction point for so many issues at the heart of the program.

Future Visions: Hosted Lifebits and the Personal Cloud
This talk would provide an overview of existing technical infrastructure much of the innovation in higher ed has relied on since 2003 (LAMP stacks for self-hosted apps like WordPress, MediaWiki, etc.) while framing what will come next. It will look at the changing nature of cloud infrastructure that started with APIs at Amazon and led to Amazon Web Services, a cloud-based infrastructure that effectively changed the nature of how we imagine the basic plumping of the web. The implications for future innovations are remarkable given access to various technologies beyond the LAMP environment are increasingly just one-click way, not to mention the implications for managing and hosting your personal digital “lifebits” on your own cloud. This ties into practical work we are doing at Reclaim that builds on the Domains project.  In fact, I would love to teach an entire course about this topic.

The Problem with Analytics in Higher Education:
This would be a bit more of a provocation (although well grounded in the current reality of big tech) that would trace the discussion around analytics (much like I propose with the LMS) in order to lay bare some of the assumptions and problems with the promise of analytics as an excuse for unfettered data collection on the part of the various systems that we subscribe to in higher educational institutions (and beyond). I will discuss this in light of alternative models for imagining data collection and control on the part of the individual using “personal  APIs” and designing a system that gives  students and faculty far more control over their data—which should be a central concern given “data is the new oil.”

Practical Innovations: An Idiosyncratic History of Learning Design:
This would be a bit of the greatest hits of work we did at UMW to focus on practical ways in which you build a culture of innovation around learning technologies. This would cover UMW Blogs, ds106, Domain of One’s Own and move to Reclaim Hosting. I’ve done versions of this many times, and it will really focus on learning design and innovation, but will touch tangentially on the other two core tenets of the program.

I find it is easier to propose things than to do them, but when you commit to showing up you have to have something. We settled on the history of the LMS proposal, and I was happy to dig in. But once I started to prepare I remembered I’m not much of a historian, rather I’m just a lowly blogger. So I started searching around, and I started at the Learning Management System Wikipedia article. This led me to E.M. Forster’s story called “The Machine Stops”, which struck me as fairly bizarre starting point for distance learning in the 20th century. Wild to think the same writer behind novels like Passage to India, Howard’s End, and Room with a View could have a hand in the beginnings of the LMS. But that’s what’s remains compelling about the field of edtech: it’s a strange mix of Edwardian nostalgia, technological imperialism, and speculative science fiction. 

Around the same time I was reading Forster’s story, Audrey Watter’s published her review of Brian Dear’s The Friendly Orange Glow—a history of the “the first generalized computer-assisted instruction system.” After reading her review and following up on both the Brett Victor 1973 2013 “Future of Programming” talk (which I had not previously watched)  as well as a deeper dive into PLATO. And after that I had the preparatory reading/viewing for my class visit: E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” Brett Victor’s “The Future of Programming,” and Audrey Watter’s PLATO review. I liked the way the idea of dogma weaved its way through all three pieces, and it resonated with the students as well.

As I imagined we spent most of the time talking about Forster’s short story, which was fine by me. I came up teaching literature and I can’t get enough of it.  The parallels in that work are pretty striking, and it seems quite fresh more than 100 years after it was written. Folks make a lot of the idea of the everyone lectures and there is a distance ed machine, but for me the theme of dogma and the growing cult of technology as the next religion seemed far more interesting—not to mention the concomitant historical amnesia. Passages like the following meditation on the machine was pretty powerful for me:

Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives in the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It was robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops – but not on our lies. The Machine proceeds – but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die.

This may bleed uncomfortably close into artificial intelligence for many folks, but for me the sense of having lost control over the systems and online spaces we have helped champion was poignant. The idea of these systems existing somehow external to our collective will maps onto my experience with the LMS. A meek acceptance of this as the decided upon future for computer-mediated teaching and learning was always the worst part of instructional technology, a theme which both Brett Victor and Audrey Watters nail in relationship to the dogma of programming languages and the ahistorical dogma of edtech served up by Silicon Valley. In fact, the second half focused on Victor and Watters, and in the end I spent far more time talking about our current dogma of technology and the narratives we weave rather than anything resembling a history of the LMS. I tried to save myself by quickly running through the Wikipedia page on the History of virtual learning environments, which I got thanks to a Tweet from Audrey and turned out to be a real gem.

It was fun to do, and it gave me an idea for a fun presentation wherein one gives 2004/2005 era edtech talk in relationship to all that’s changed in the last 15 years when it comes to promise and possibilities of Web 2.0. I still think it is a bit too close, and unlike some I don’t think that work was for naught—but it does take on a different valence 15 years later. Anyway, I wanted to try and get out some of these thoughts down before they vanished, and say a special thank you to Eddie and the students in the course who made me feel so welcome and tolerated my two and a half hour indulgence. 

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30 days ago
Innovation in education can easily be co-opted by corporations. There is a better way. Jim is into something important here.
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A list of 25 Principles of Adult Behavior by John Perry Barlow

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Silicon Valley visionary John Perry Barlow died last night at the age of 70. When he was 30, the EFF founder (and sometime Grateful Dead lyricist) drew up a list of what he called Principles of Adult Behavior. They are:

1. Be patient. No matter what.
2. Don’t badmouth: Assign responsibility, not blame. Say nothing of another you wouldn’t say to him.
3. Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble than yours are to you.
4. Expand your sense of the possible.
5. Don’t trouble yourself with matters you truly cannot change.
6. Expect no more of anyone than you can deliver yourself.
7. Tolerate ambiguity.
8. Laugh at yourself frequently.
9. Concern yourself with what is right rather than who is right.
10. Never forget that, no matter how certain, you might be wrong.
11. Give up blood sports.
12. Remember that your life belongs to others as well. Don’t risk it frivolously.
13. Never lie to anyone for any reason. (Lies of omission are sometimes exempt.)
14. Learn the needs of those around you and respect them.
15. Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that.
16. Reduce your use of the first personal pronoun.
17. Praise at least as often as you disparage.
18. Admit your errors freely and soon.
19. Become less suspicious of joy.
20. Understand humility.
21. Remember that love forgives everything.
22. Foster dignity.
23. Live memorably.
24. Love yourself.
25. Endure.

Here’s what these principles meant to Barlow:

I don’t expect the perfect attainment of these principles. However, I post them as a standard for my conduct as an adult. Should any of my friends or colleagues catch me violating one of them, bust me.

You can read remembrances of Barlow from the EFF and from his friends Cory Doctorow and Steven Levy. The EFF wrote:

Barlow was sometimes held up as a straw man for a kind of naive techno-utopianism that believed that the Internet could solve all of humanity’s problems without causing any more. As someone who spent the past 27 years working with him at EFF, I can say that nothing could be further from the truth. Barlow knew that new technology could create and empower evil as much as it could create and empower good. He made a conscious decision to focus on the latter: “I knew it’s also true that a good way to invent the future is to predict it. So I predicted Utopia, hoping to give Liberty a running start before the laws of Moore and Metcalfe delivered up what Ed Snowden now correctly calls ‘turn-key totalitarianism.’”

Barlow’s lasting legacy is that he devoted his life to making the Internet into “a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth … a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”

Tags: Cory Doctorow   John Perry Barlow   lists   Steven Levy
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37 days ago
fantastic guidelines. focus. give a shit. love.
36 days ago
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3 public comments
37 days ago
That's a worthwhile list. I think I'll appropriate it.
Portland, Oregon, USA, Earth
37 days ago
Words to live by
37 days ago
Mr Barlow would definitely give me a "D" as an adult. But I'm trying.
Louisville, KY

Measuring Social Relations in New Classroom Spaces: Development and Validation of the Social Context and Learning Environments (SCALE) Survey

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This study addresses the need for reliable and valid information about how the innovative classrooms that are becoming more common on college and university campuses affect teaching and learning. The Social Context and Learning Environments (SCALE) survey was developed though a three-stage process involving almost 1300 college students. Exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses supported a four-factor solution that measures formal and informal aspects of student-student and student-instructor classroom relations. The resulting 26-item instrument can be used by instructors and researchers to measure classroom social context in different types of learning spaces and to guide efforts to improve student outcomes.
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45 days ago
validated survey on student experience in learning spaces…
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Top Hat Marketplace: What is it and should we care?

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When Top Hat announced their latest round of financing a year ago ($22.5m), I admit to having been skeptical, or more accurately cynical, about their stated purpose. The company was primarily known for its mobile and laptop-based classroom response system, but now it is claiming to be a digital content company.

Top Hat, the Canadian education technology startup, completed a new round of funding to give it more firepower to go after textbook publishers like Pearson Plc. [snip]

Top Hat is one of a handful of startups trying to find ways to disrupt the traditional textbook publishing industry, dominated by companies like Pearson, Cengage Learning Inc. and McGraw-Hill Education Inc., which is owned by Apollo Global Management LLC. All of these firms have added digital educational materials to their range of products, but the transition has been rocky.

Then in the summer the company announced their new Marketplace.

The Top Hat Marketplace answers the urgent need of professors and instructors to easily find and create educational content that is interactive, easily customizable and much more affordable for students than conventional textbooks. The educational content in the Top Hat Marketplace breaks the slow-paced publishing model by allowing educators to provide one another instant feedback. This collaborative community-sourced model means that the Marketplace’s content is continually being updated and improved upon.

We at e-Literate have been covering the long-running and messy transition to digital curricular materials, including the search for new business models for content companies. But the announcements from Top Hat, to me at least, had the feel of a company pivot leveraging big, bad publishers as the bait for naive investors. Quite often it feels like the official greeting of ed tech entrepreneurs has either been "we're going to beat Pearson" or "we're going to beat Blackboard". Top Hat and its products do not neatly fit into typical categories, but this may mean that we're seeing a new model emerge, or at least a modernized and serious attempt to establish the self-publishing model.

The Marketplace provides a series of textbooks and ancillary material, (course notes, question packs, presentations, etc) that instructors can browse, adopt, modify, and share with students either as mandatory or recommended resources. Students pay fees between $0 and roughly $65 for the materials. A spokesperson for Top Hat clarified a recent change:

As we've already discussed, 90% of the content in the Top Hat Marketplace is free for instructors and students to use. However, as of Friday, students no longer need to use the Top Hat engagement app to access this content—meaning, students will no longer need to pay the per-term app fee to use free textbooks and content.

Other than reasonably low prices, nothing noteworthy so far. What is unique is that there are two primary sources for the content - self-publishing by instructors and open education resources (OER) from OpenStax. As described in the press release this summer:

“We leveraged our existing relationship with educators already using our classroom engagement tools to test and launch the Marketplace,” said Mike Silagadze, co-Founder and CEO of Top Hat. “The Marketplace finally puts educators — the people at the forefront of learning — in charge of their course materials.

Screen shot of economics materials

The Marketplace has been designed as a self-publishing platform for educators designed around collaboration tools called Textbook. I interviewed Demian Hommel, senior instructor of geography at Oregon State University, and his experience helps explain the path that Top Hat is taking from classroom response systems to content marketplace. Hommel is an "an advocate for place-based and experiential education, service learning, and research-informed teaching" and has used the classroom response system for several terms. In the meantime, he has wanted to create a geography textbook but did not want to go through the traditional publishers. Since he already knew of Top Hat, when they announced Textbook and the Marketplace Hommel decided that he wanted to go with the self-publishing route.

Hommel's interest in publishing models does not seem to be driven by financial considerations, at least for himself, as he said he is not sure how well Top Hat will be able to scale usage of the Marketplace. One big driver for self-publishing was the interest in keeping the textbook current in a changing world of geography. Hommel views the Marketplace as providing a convenient platform enabling active learning techniques and the ability to control and update his textbook over time.

There is another differentiator in how Top Hat provides content - the remarkably easy method to enable instructors to modify content, whether in the authoring process or as customizations to content that instructors choose to adopt. Basically, if you can author a post in Medium, you could create and modify content in the Top Hat platform.

Consider Hommel's Geography textbook. Here I have added the book to my course and hit edit in one section. By placing the cursor between text and an interactive text discussion prompt, then choosing the pop-up "Add" icon, I get the choice to add any of the following elements:

Editing a textbook

This is the same interface as originally used to author the textbook. Beyond the ease of editing (customizing for my class, adding my content) is the apparent ease of accepting updates from the content author, based on a new feature introduced in a limited trial in September. The instructor sees a notification about updated content, reviews the updates, and (if all works out) decides whether to update while maintaining any customizations made by instructor.

Method to accept revisions

The functionality also promises to allow an instructor to review and adopt  customizations made by others who are working on the same base content.

This is not an easy problem to solve, but if Top Hat is able to resolve how to deal with conflicting updates and local customizations, the intuitive user experience could change how faculty members and course designers collaborate and update content.

Top Hat does have some real challenges in establishing themselves as a full-fledged content provider. One was mentioned by Hommel, when he pointed out the lack of broad awareness of the Marketplace amongst faculty even at his university. Top Hat is known for its classroom response and presentation systems, and with the Marketplace acting as a two-sided market, it needs sufficient supply of self-publishing content and sufficient numbers of adopting instructors.

CEO Mike Silagadze response when I asked him about the adoption challenge is that the Classroom adoption, which they claim to be used "at 75% of North America's leading colleges and universities and reaches millions of students", has established Top Hat's direct relationship with thousands of faculty members. In this way, they are betting that Demian Hommel is a model - aware of company through Classroom, interested in textbook usage based on self-publishing model, and willing to extend their personal usage of the company's products.

One other challenge is that it is not a done deal that self-publishing has sufficient demand on the content creation side. Are there enough instructors in a broad array of disciplines who want to invest the time and effort to create textbooks without a clear model of possible financial reward? This is the bet that Top Hat is making, that the market can grow to the point that there are reasonable clear answers on financial rewards. And there is the hope that there are enough Demian Hommels who are willing to make these commitments without financial drivers.

I do not know if this product will take off, but if it does the Marketplace would establish a viable self-publishing model for faculty willing to work within the Top Hat platform. Over the past year in particular, the landscape of digital curricular materials is adding new models, and the Marketplace is worth watching.

There is also an OER angle based on Top Hat's marketing and the OpenStax partnership, which I'll describe further in another post.

The post Top Hat Marketplace: What is it and should we care? appeared first on e-Literate.

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69 days ago
They demoed the content authoring stuff last year, describing it as an oer production platform. Uncanny valley.
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