Jason B. Jones and Hacking Education

24 Oct

Jason B. Jones, co-editor of ProfHacker and co-organizer of THATCamp New England, spoke at Brandeis University Friday last. My summary of his ideas is below (I invite other attendees to add their thoughts in the comments section):

  1. The genesis of ProfHacker. Jason described the origins of his famous blog, which shares the experiences of teachers and learners as they hack, or tweak, or tinker about with various aspects of their teaching and learning. Profhacker was born in the desire to create a solution- and sharing-focused culture, where it is ok to admit to problems and challenges, from the mundane to the sublime, but where people also share solutions. In this sense ProfHacker was meant to diverge from various dysfunctional ways of dealing collectively with change and individual development: either not to share anything, or to reveal no personal problems (and thus be invulnerable to critique), or to dwell overmuch on problems without taking any personal responsibility (to complain a lot, that is).
  2. On the idea of the “hacker.” Faculty (and other) hackers should not be seen as War Games-like reclusive super geniuses with tormented souls, or people who break into systems for fun, to change grades, or to sell credit card numbers to the Mafia; rather they are just regular people who try little things out and share their experiences. Humble projects. Like hooks on the wall where you need to hang your keys. Perhaps, though, they are unusual in one way–in that they allow themselves permission to change the world around them.
  3. On systems. Jason B. Jones noted that the understandable desire on the part of school administrations to install centralized academic systems of various kinds (like the ubiquitous learning management system) almost guarantees the systems won’t be used by faculty, because they won’t be conceived of and developed out of a deep understanding of real, individual need; additionally, they tend to squash a culture of experimentation. As Jason noted, “a solution for your faculty that your faculty have to then figure out how to use is one that will not be used.”
  4. “You need to be willing to try stuff.”  Instead of imposed, centralized systems, Jason argues, we should encourage and allow and grow a culture (like ProfHacker) in which faculty and students try out and share any sorts of software programs, tools, gadgets, or processes they think can help their teaching and learning. Jason considers the faculty’s right to explore and discover and to help their students discover meaning in idiosyncratic ways to be a fundamental part of their academic freedom. Jason also notes the challenge in growing this culture: “willingness to fiddle,” says he, “is a surprisingly rare trait.”
  5. Letting 1,000 Flowers Bloom, Part A. What if teachers actually ditched the LMS or other imposed systems and started using any tool they felt appropriate? Wouldn’t it a) be horrible for the students to have to learn a new tool in every class and b) be difficult for I.T. and other units to support? The answer is no and yes. No, says Jason, it wouldn’t be horrible for students to have to learn lots of different tools, but realistic–it is actually the current state of the adult and professional world that we all are constantly learning a variety of new tools and processes; it is thus reality; it’s less safe (see point 7 below) than a centralized system, and therefore likely more engaging for students. Most importantly, students would learn the skill of quickly learning new tools, which you might say is one of the most important skills there is.
  6. 1,000 Flowers, Part B. To answer the Flowers question subset b, I have to channel Jason a bit (since I don’t think he directly addressed this point), but my sense is that he would say something like this: yes, it would be hard for a traditionally conceived I.T. support relationship to cultivate a thousand flowers planted without their permission. If, that is, we assume the I.T. staff need to learn everything in advance, train everyone before they need the tool, support them in the use of the tool, and implement every tool discovered by any faculty member or student in such a way that it could be used reliably by everyone. But that idea of I.T. support is fairly well exploded; not only can I.T. not know all needs in advance, or develop related training, but not many would come to such training (see my post on the death of the workshop), and (as Jason noted, in point 3 above on systems), if, as in the traditional way, I.T. staff found and imposed a centralized system that didn’t grow out of user need, it would be likely to be unused.
  7. On sandboxes and safety. Jason sees behind systems and much of classroom learning an understandable desire to be consistent and fiscally responsible, and also a desire to provide people a safe place to learn and explore. However, safety, for Jason, is not pedagogically effective. Students, says he, “need access to the actual working conditions of actual academics,” and to be able to make actual things. Actuality is not safe, it ends up. And, safe environments, like abridged texts, like busy work, like a paper whose only audience is the professor, feel inauthentic to students, and less meaningful. As a result they disengage. On the other hand, if there is some risk, if the “world” will see the paper, if there’s a chance for an embarrassing mistake, etc., students are more likely to think the work matters, and to care about what they do, and to learn.
  8. On Nimbleness. Jason notes a recent trend in which faculty are called on by their institutions to be nimble, spunky, responsive, to do more with less, to experiment. He suggests these calls for nimbleness bear with them the implicit call for danger and are therefore inconsistent with institutional desire for safety and consistency (but they are also good in the sense of point 7 above). Nimbleness, he notes, is associated historically with pirates, thieves, and scofflaws, such Calico Jack of “Jack be nimble” fame.
  9. On the agreement. Jason refers to the tacit agreement of the classroom–that the professor will teach in conventional ways and assign a conventional amount of work in exchange for students showing up and more or less willingly going through the motions. He notes that when you start to hack your course, and try out new things, students may think you’re breaching that agreement.  You should expect to engage them in conversations about why you are doing what you’re doing, or to see some resistance at first.
  10. That There are Still Rules. Jason also noted that even in a more authentic, less safe classroom, a hacked classroom, even in a culture of experimentation, where conventions and assumptions are questioned, there is still a need for rules and some kind of guidance. He offerred a change he made in his own teaching as an example. He noticed that students weren’t taking very good notes in class–in a sense, they weren’t seeing the activity in the classroom itself as part of the information they should gather and study in their learning. So he assigned them in groups to collaboratively write summaries of class discussions on a course wiki. At first it didn’t work; the blank white of the wiki page scared students into silence. But when Jason provided guidance in note-writing and distributed a helpful template, then the logjam was released and students began to work together to make sense of the assignment.

3 Responses to “Jason B. Jones and Hacking Education”

  1. Lincoln Mullen October 26, 2011 at 1:16 am #

    I think you’ve captured a lot of detail about Jason’s talk here. One of the key distinctions I took away was that between the sandbox (where everything is safe) and the playground (which is supervised, but not completely safe). Higher ed should be a playground.

    • wedaman October 26, 2011 at 1:08 pm #

      Hence his title, “Professors as Hackers, Higher Ed as a Playground.” Thanks, Lincoln!

  2. sarahw October 27, 2011 at 8:20 pm #

    In his earlier talk, I was struck by the graduate students who were genuinely interested in teaching and improving the pedagogy in the classes they TA for, but were unable to make changes with certain faculty members, and the challenges they face in doing so as they depend on them for thesis advising, networking, recommendations etc.

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