Learning Technology Developer Opinon

Digital filtering

No, not the infinite impulse response filter, but what digital tools do for us, and against us – the wrong tools are as bad or worse than no tools. Free speech is in the tooling, not the content.

It’s a bit of a cliche to quote Marshall MacLuan when discussing digital technologies, but his insight that a new medium “roughs up” a society by its mere existence is apt

McLuhan tells us that a “message” is, “the change of scale or pace or pattern” that a new invention or innovation “introduces into human affairs.”

The scale, pace and pattern of digital technologies means they are now, and will become moreso, the primary means of our expressing ourselves in many spheres of life. And if not the primary means, certainly an enabling/disabling means. Even a traditional analogue sculptor is likely to order some tools or supplies online.

Why does this matter in Academia? A key role of research in academia is to identify and solve societal, technical and medical problems before they crop up in the future, or at least put in place the means to rapidly respond to surprises we might receive. For example

“Early efforts by scientists at Oxford University to create an adenovirus-based vaccine against MERS provided the necessary experimental experience and groundwork to develop an adenovirus vaccine for COVID-19.” – Dr. Eric J. Yager, Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Albany, NY

We usually don’t have the time to start working on a problem when it manifests – imagine if we had to wait 10-15 years for covid vaccinations, rather than just one year due to the headstart from MERS.

Quite often these subject-specific results can be adequately expressed via the traditional route of disseminating papers, videos, and datasets, so the existing digital tools for dissemination are at least broadly adequate. And research communities around the world have a long-standing capability in developing the new experimental apparatus they require, using a combination of off-the-shelf and custom equipment and software. In the humanities, some research areas require the creation of new digital tools, and researchers undertaking this task are appropriately skilled.

Yet when we consider the other role of Academia – to produce graduates with attributes that maximise their potential for solving the future problems of the world, we start to see a bit of an issue emerging. Unlike the research world, the teaching sector is heavily reliant on external software and has less of a culture of build-it-yourself-when-needed (these tasks often go in the too-hard basket, or the can’t-be-resourced basket). This is a supposedly pragmatic response to the issue of the scale, and risk of delivering a teaching experience to many students. But it does not let us avoid the core problem. It is a short-term response that creates a longer-term problem. Why? Let’s start by considering an outrageous example.

Imagine if Microsoft and Adobe overnight decided that we should not use the colour green in any document created with their systems. We would have to give up using green, or learn to use the excellent open-source tools for photo-editing and drawing such as GIMP, Inkscape and OpenOffice. Imagine the fuss! Clearly, no commercial supplier would take such odd action. Yet, what if as thought leaders in the world, there becomes a new value, or principle that is so important to academia, or more likely, a particular institution, that cannot be implemented/expressed/actioned with the existing software they use. What if their inability to express that is as distressing as not being able to use the colour green?

This could occur if we want to start living our academic values in a more consistent way. For example, should we wish to develop a new approach in education that is not catered to by the existing externally-supplied software, or even just tweak something that is not culturally appropriate, then we face a brick-wall of uneditable black box code.

Since it costs money and time to create, implement and test a software architecture with flexibility – knowing what to keep constant is a key skill and those choices are influenced by the culture, values and philosophies of the architect. So what happens when that choice doesn’t work out for other users? For example, if we have a grade reporting system that shows traffic lights to represent pass-fail, then a single threshold is insufficient because the pass/fail mark varies by country, institution and study level, so you can find institutions for whom a pass is 40% in the UK, 50% in the USA, and 60% in China. A system hardwired for US courses is inappropriate in many UK and Chinese institutions. It might even be quite difficult to retrofit that change when reported to the creators. So, do you give up on traffic lights, or create your own software, or wish for a world in which things were open-source and you could edit/tweak and adjust what you need, when you need it?

Did you start to sweat at the risk of making changes to the codebase, testing them, rolling it out, and running a custom service? How is that different to running a University printing press back when pen and paper was the norm. We managed the transition to publishing, now we need to manage the transition to the academic sector being able to create, modify and operate its own digital tooling where it needs to.

This is important in higher education where the development of graduate attributes not currently assessable with examinations (probably marked in Gradescope) will more than likely require new digital tools with culturally-specific features that vary by subject, level, institution and country. The external supply of what we need will at best severely lag our demand, and incompletely support our needs, if we leave it to market forces to create. The alternative is to be able to create the novel digital tooling we need within the sector, using open source licenses, so that others can modify to suit themselves, without having to start over. What do we need to do? I have some thoughts on the digital literacies helpful to STEM education developments here.

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