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social systemssystems thinkingUncategorized

Culture and heritage: Social systems in four dimensions

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International sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics provide intriguing examples of the complexity and situated-nature of culture and heritage as people from all walks of life reveal, (re) create, adopt and adapt to some form of unique and shared identity, even if temporarily. This situated-ness is what illustrates one of the most substantial challenges for organizations and governments alike as they wrestle with complexity in their mission.

This past week my home country (Canada) celebrated its 149th birthday as a nation on what we call Canada Day. Three days later, our neighbours (the United States) celebrated their birthday on a holiday known jointly as the 4th of July and Independence Day. The latter title is something that former UKIP leader and advocate for the Brexit Leave campaign, Nigel Farage, proclaimed the UK should adopt in light of the UK’s narrow vote to secede from Europe.

Countries and nations are strange beasts. They are both real and fictitious imaginations of human beings to organize people, places and (sometimes) things in ways that are both useful at times and harmful at others. John Lennon implored us to imagine there were no countries and that there would be “nothing to kill or die for” as a result. A look at the environmental and conservation challenges facing our planet has inspired people like Michael Quinn Patton to begin looking Blue Marble Evaluation as a means of encouraging us to go beyond the boundaries imposed by the nation state to look more deeply at tackling challenges facing our planet that transnational and have no consideration for our created borders.

It could be argued that, aside from borders (which can be arbitrarily drawn, although the effects of such drawing is far from arbitrary), what defines a nation is culture and heritage. All one has to do is witness how the world changes when major international sporting events take place and how individuals who may have a citizenship or residency in one country suddenly transform into someone from another by donning a jersey, raising a flag or chanting a cheer.

And to complicate matters, this is often done without leaving one identity behind, but putting on another as well or even creating a hybrid. This is what makes culture — national, organizational or community — so interesting and also so challenging to deal with. It is what keeps governments on their toes and organizations on their heels.

History, geography, time

At present the European football championships (the Euros) are concluding in France and as a fan of ‘the beautiful game’ I find myself confronting these challenges of culture and heritage head-on when I consider supporting a team. To begin, my family is Canadian through many generations. My mothers’ parents arrived from Germany and Romania when they were very young at the start of the 20th century. My fathers’ family has roots in England and Norway (via the United States) that go back into the 18th and 19th centuries. If I was to pick a side based on family connection to a nation, who’s colours should I wear?

One way to determine that might be time away. In that case, should I pick Germany and Romania because they are more recent in my family past, or Norway or England? But then, there is that bit about family having come from Europe through the United States, so should I be rooting for the USA (assuming they were involved in the Euros for a moment)?

Further complicating this was that the Germany my grandfather was born into in the early 1900’s was barely 30 years, as it had been pulled together in 1871 from many independently run ‘micro-states’ which formed from an earlier dissolution of more than 500 states nearly 70 years before. About that same time Romania had become unified, separated from the Ottoman Empire and then reformed as a Kingdom all within the last 50 years of the 1800’s. It was another ‘new’ country too.

While the administrative configuration of these countries was new, the cultures and heritage of those who were in or out or back in the country had been long shared. All one needs to do is consider the enormous social, economic, religious and geographic complexities unleashed by  treaties like the one at Versailles in 1918 which substantially altered the global post-colonial landscape that had been established by European powers, or those that led to the “creation” of Iraq and in 1948 “created” the state of Israel. In the latter examples, there are cultures thousands of years old who were well-established long before ever being declared a country.

The point is that what we call a country is a perfect example of a systems thinking maxim that points to the importance of understanding a system from where one sits within it. In the case of looking to defining a country, we need to look at many things (vantage points in a system) and that includes time, history. It means we need to consider 4 dimensions of spacetime to really understand complex conditions like countries, nations, identities and cultures.

The elsewhere home

I know someone who is a die-hard Irish even if it was her great, great grandparents that came to Canada. She might be more Irish than others I know who were born in Ireland and have only been here for a few years and are now permanent residents. So, who of the two lays a better claim to “being Irish”?

These arguments are not just philosophical, but illustrative of the challenges we face in creating community and identity in the modern world. For those intending to change that world — on whatever matter — these issues of identity are important. People come together for many reasons and a sense of shared culture and heritage are two of the most powerful, yet also nebulous markers. Culture might be expressed through food, rituals, practices of faith, symbols (e.g, badges, jerseys, flags, slogans and cheers) and fashion.

And despite the protestations of many who might disagree, there is no such thing as a pure culture; it’s always remixed, repurposed and re-imagined. Consider the Icelandic football team that performed better than anyone imagined and progressed to the quarter finals of this years’ Euros. Their fans have developed a Viking war chant as part of their repertoire of cheers (seen below) . And while the Vikings were certainly part of the heritage of Iceland, it’s the cultural identity that Iceland’s citizens gravitate to because of that shared (and constructed) heritage, even if the Vikings never played football.

And to see how quickly cultural practices spread, consider this same ‘viking’ chant was performed brilliantly with supporters from my hometown football (in Toronto, Canada) just days after the video above was shot (see below). There are no vikings in Canada — even though they were our first visitors from Europe.


Indeed, this cultural ‘home’ is almost always elsewhere as well as ‘here’.

4-D sports and other models

If we are to be effective at making positive contributions to influencing social systems, we can learn a lot from sport and the way it serves to facilitate and amplify culture — positively and negatively. From the chants and cheers to the banners, scarves, jerseys, hats and costumes that people wear to games and as signs of support or affiliation provide us with ready-made labs to help us understand how culture and heritage are manifested.

Stories are told, a shared narrative emerges about a club or country related to a sport, and icons are created. These become myths, but also sources for inspiration and, if not carefully considered, sources for social exclusion and violence. We can create the same conditions in our communities and organizations to different degrees if we pay attention. At the same time, we can learn how identities can be shared and mixed. To come back to my story of support, I actually was interested in three teams in this tournament for different reasons. England, partly because of history, but more because my favourite club team was well-represented on them, I have many friends from there, and have been to the UK many times and really like it there. Italy, not because I have any familial connection to them, but because I like the country and my best friend and I share that love and found ourselves over the years watching the games together and that shared cheer just added to the strong bond we have.

Lastly, and (for particularly for the current state of the tournament), Germany.

Some might say that I can’t support multiple countries. Some might suggest that the logic behind any of these choices is flawed. But that’s the thing with culture, heritage and the way we bring these together. We create the logic that justifies why we are or are not part of a group. We attach the meaning to the flag, the colours, the music the tastes — what social theorist Pierre Bourdieu critiqued as markers of distinction (PDF).

So with that, come on Germany — go win the Euros! (And if not, you’re just a socially, temporally and culturally constructed entity that provides me with a sense of affiliation to certain members of my family, fond memories of eating German-inspired food and speaking German to my Grandmother, a respect for the way that you play the sport and the approach you take to developing players, and a connection to thousands of strangers worldwide who will, for the moment, dress like me and cheer when I do. And that is as good of a reason to support them — or any country — as any).

May we all find ways to create this in the various ‘teams’ (communities, organizations, countries) we find ourselves sharing.

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Photo credits: Germany vs Poland 0-0 by George Groutas used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks for sharing George; hope you had fun at the Euros!

behaviour changecomplexitydesign thinkingsocial systemssystems thinking

Ethics and Systemic Change

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Systems change is a goal for many social advocates — whether aimed at politics, climate change, social norms or beyond — because often it’s only through changes to the interrelationships and boundaries that contain a system can lasting shifts be noticed. With great potential and power comes a responsibility to ensure that change yields more benefits than drawbacks and that’s not as simple to determine as we might desire. 

In the week after the historic Brexit vote we’ve seen massive destabilization in the United Kingdom, Europe and markets worldwide as the British populace seeks to understand what happened and what happens next for them. In the wake of the vote we’ve seen the sitting Prime Minister David Cameron, and Remain vote advocate, announce he will be stepping down and two of the most prominent leaders of the Leave campaign — Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage — announce they would not be seeking to lead or be heavily involved in what comes next.

The resignations by Mr Cameron, who’s decision to hold the referendum in the first place, and Mr’s Johnson and Farage, who led the winning side, stung many on both sides. The argument is that they were largely responsible for what has been described as a mess and yet have opted not to take responsibility for implementing what they created. It is something of a Mary Shelley novel.

Great Britain (and Europe) will be forever changed by Brexit and it will remain to be seen what balance of positives and negatives will come from it. While even dark decisions can yield positive outcomes (that silver lining we often look for in the clouds) there is a responsibility that must come from our actions and design choices to ensuring they minimize harms.

Ethics and Systemic design (thinking)

For a field that is literally shaping the world, design discourse is remarkably devoid of conversations on ethics. Only recently did the first book appear that took ethics in design research as its topic. Yet that is design research, the amount of work on design ethics — how we choose responsibly about what to create along with how to create it (and what role, if any, designers choose to take once something has been sent into the world) is painfully thin. While there’s been a growing movement towards sustainability and environmental responsibility in product design, there’s not as much on social system design.

One area where we are seeing these discussions starting is in the area of systemic design. Systemic design is, as its name suggests, a systems-focused, design-oriented approach to changing human systems. Systemic design is not just about changing social conditions in an ameliorative approach to change, but shaping the very conditions in which those conditions arise. In many ways is it the design manifestation of community psychology. Systemic designers seek to transform the world. However, much like the (mostly) men who led the Brexit Leave campaign, there is a need to have one’s intentions clear and ensure that what is designed is responsible and responsive and that’s not what we’ve seen in that case.

This might be because motivation for change is often very blunt — perhaps based on fear or dissatisfaction — that might not have a specific focus. This is the challenge for systemic design. Systems thinking is a powerful vehicle in systemic design, however its often a tool to determine where to intervene and what could transpire if certain actions are taken once chosen, but not as good as determining what actions are best suited. This is where design thinking comes in and together the two approaches inform systemic design.

Peter Jones, a systemic designer and professor at OCADU (and colleague of mine), has written on this and draws on his experience with healthcare and the Occupy Movement as part of his work in advancing systemic design research. In his paper on systemic design principles (PDF), Jones points to the limits that design thinking approach — that solution generation aspect of systemic design — can present:

Design thinking has been influenced by rapid prototyping culture. When virtual trials and failures are cheap, multiple prototypes are less expensive than in-depth analysis and research. However, this design thinking bias leads to a short-term bias that rewards immediate responses to prototypes.

Jones adds that this approach is suitable for certain products (and arguably, system types), but that this approach can fail to address systemic problems if not critically applied:

For industrial products, those bias’ risks are minimal. However, for complex social systems a prototyping mindset evaluates component subsystems (at best) selected by a saliency bias. This bottom-up approach fails to acquire a system-level understanding and even erodes a holistic view. New system relationships are formed through iterative trials and informal sample evaluations, but current relationships are not necessarily discovered, leading to significant gaps in systemic understanding.

From design thinking to conscious creation

Systemic design, if not carefully done, can end up creating these gaps as we saw with the ‘grassroots’ movements in both the Leave and Remain campaigns in the Brexit debate.

A powerful, simple technique to determining causes and consequences of current behaviour is to ask the question ‘why’ as many times as possible. Five ‘whys’ asked on any issue will likely lead to a revelation about fundamental drivers behind a particular activity. Systemic design seeks to address change at this level as much as possible by creating, with intention and purpose (i.e., by design), structures that support and shift behaviour and thinking to transform the situation and context that can lead to a more profound and sustained change.

A corollary to this approach to understanding root causes might be the five whats? What might happen if we do X? What might happen after that takes place? And then what? And so on. This is similar to The Future,Backwards technique that Cognitive Edge has developed based on research into foresight, strategic planning and systems thinking. Just because we can change something doesn’t mean we should and wise design informed by systems thinking, strategic foresight and ethics can help us understand what ought to be done rather than simply highlight what can be done.

To that last point, a fair criticism of design is that it too often focuses on possibility without responsibility. Even on social issues we see design jams, hackathons, and ideation sessions that produce more ‘stuff’ (too often an ‘app’, as if the only solution to the worlds’ problems originate from a handheld electronic device) that is cool, sexy and disruptive without paying attention to what kind of disruption comes with that ‘solution’. A recent story on CBC Radio on the future of farming considered this as it explored how robotics are shaping how food is being produced. One of the comments made was that the ‘savings’ that often is incurred by having robots do more work is the kind of ‘lock in’ that it produces as farmers now get committed to buying, maintaining and upgrading technology for the long-term.

Conscious creation and technology adoption is something that groups like the Quakers and Amish have mastered and might be worth more of a look by more people — particularly designers. For design — and particularly systemic design — the ethics of what we make, maintain and adopt affects not only us, but all of those around us. For that reason, we need to build in ethics to our design work, by design.

Note: If you’re interested in learning more about systemic design consider attending the 2016 Systemic Design conference (RSD5) in Toronto, Canada October 13-15. Registration is open until the spots are filled.

Photo credit: Sea Ice Patterns by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks NASA — as always, you rock (and space and sea and space and….) 🙂

behaviour changesocial systemssystems thinkingUncategorized

Systems thinking and collective impact

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When we seek change the temptation is looking for ‘the key’ component of a problem or situation that, if changed, is expected to lead to profound transformation. Too frequently these type of solutions fail not because the change to the component is poor, but that the thinking is not aligned to the system that contributes to the problem in the first place and thus, changing thinking is what’s actually the key not the designed solution. 

If you’re one of the millions of people who made a New Years resolution there is a very good chance that your resolve has already wavered if not been completely abandoned. Research shows that New Years resolutions simply don’t hold up. This is not because of lack of will or even lack of effort or thought, but because we often confuse changes in a part of the system (e.g., exercise and better diet) with changes in the system itself (overall better health and weight loss).

Travel might be the ultimate example of systems and change. For the scenario pictured above, having a better automobile does nothing to help navigate the streetscape. No amount of fuel efficiency, top speed, safety rating or performance tires are going to make an ounce of difference in traversing this space. The reason is that the transportation system is broken, not that the units within it are. Indeed, cars, bikes, rickshaws and foot all perform perfectly well in this environment as designed, yet are rendered disabled in this context, which was designed to facilitate, not hinder their use.

Collective impact, systems change?

The model of collective impact is one that recognizes the fallacies of assuming that organizations seeking transformative social change will do so on their own, independently through wise thought and action. Collective impact is a model that has been widely supported by organizations such as Tamarack as a means of building capacity for systems change, not just change in the system.

The concept of collective impact was first popularized by John Kania and Mark Kramer in an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Collective impact is a specific set of strategies that align the following five qualities and brief summaries that follow:

  • Common agenda (are organizations striving for the same things?)
  • Shared measurement systems (are partners measuring the same things in the same ways to enable comparisons and combine data?)
  • Mutually reinforcing activities (are initiatives building on one another, syncing up, and coherent?)
  • Continuous communication (are partners ‘in the know’ about what is happening across the system as activities unfold? )
  • Backbone support organizations (is there an organization or more that provides coordinating support and infrastructure to maintain the whole enterprise?)

The concept of coordinated action toward a common goal supported by shared means of assessment and feedback and ongoing communication is an enormous step forward in organizing actors involved in social change initiatives.

What is often missing from the discussion of collective impact is systems thinking. That is, explicit discussion of the way systems operate and not just discussion of the system itself that is to be changed. To be clear, there are many ways of doing collective impact and I mention Tamarack because they are among the few organizations that bring systems thinking into their work on systems change and collective impact. But it’s important to note that this is an exception, not the rule when reviewing what’s out there on collective impact. Many organizations do not (or may not) realize that thinking about systems change is not the same as systems thinking.

It is quite possible that we could see collective impact produce a larger-scale version of the flaws we see in initiatives aimed at changing components of the system if systems thinking isn’t considered integral to how its implemented. No amount of communication or shared measurement will help if we don’t measure the right things.

Systems thinking about collective impact

Social change is not doing the same thing that works at one scale (e.g. a person, family or team) and simply doing a lot more of it in more places. There are corollaries to be sure, but it’s not a linear pathway. Just as scaling a challenge and the response to it up produces potential for benefits, it also can scale harmful (or limiting) effects if the problem is not well-defined.

With that, let me pose some questions and challenges for those engaging in collective impact to help advance our shared understanding that are rooted in systems thinking?

  • What is the problem that is aimed to be solved (and is it the real problem?) Have alternative viewpoints from a diversity of actors throughout the system been considered in light of their position within the system and the values, goals and aspirations of those seeking systems change?
  • One of the ways that this diversity of perspectives is gained is through systems mapping. Systems mapping can be done through many different methods with each producing different looks at the dynamics, structures and relationships within the system. But what is shared is that it visualizes these qualities in a manner that makes it accessible to (almost) everyone. It allows for participants in the process to ask questions like: “why is [x] located so close to [y]?” or “where is [z] in all of this?” These create the kind of discussions that allow assumptions to emerge about the dynamics of the system itself.
  • An important follow-up to this is tracking these issues and framing them as evaluation questions. This grounds some of the metrics and measures in the system itself, not just the activities that the participants in collective impact initiatives seek to perform. It can also recognize the limits of the organizations at the table and either better account for them or provide guidance on how to overcome them (e.g., recruit more or different partners).
  • Systems maps are not only useful at the beginning, but can be an evaluative tool in itself. Maps developed at the start of an initiative and at different time points can enable partners to see what has changed and potentially find out how by examining how the structures, relationships and inclusion or exclusion of certain parts of the system shift over time. It may not allow for explicit causal attribution, but it can help understand and document what changed and initiate collective sense making about how that might have happened.

This is just a sample.

If we consider the traffic problem posed at the start of this post, one might find that the system problem isn’t even one related to the street, but to the larger community. One may find that the distances or locations of places to work, worship, shop and play are misaligned or that there are times of days when certain activities bring people into the street or perhaps its related to temperature (too hot, too cold) and the absence of climate control systems that work. More importantly however, systems thinking may enable us to account for all of these at the same time and avoid us focusing on one or two problems, but the system as a whole avoiding what is known as “a fix that fails”.

 

 

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The rise of the digital epidemiologist: Using big data to track outbreaks and disasters

We are seeing a major change in the way diseases are discovered, tracked and addressed. Matthew Braga from the Financial Post has been looking at this nascent field of digital epidemiology and reports on its leading edge. I was interviewed for this and spoke about how social media is playing a role in this new vanguard of public health science and practice.

Financial Post | Business

There exists an organization that, using nothing more than the cellphone in your pocket, can track where you are – and, with a certain degree of certainty, where you soon will be.

But it isn’t the National Security Agency (NSA), nor Canada’s own surveillance analogue, CSEC (Communications Security Establishment Canada) though both are certainly capable of this too.

Rather, it’s a Swedish project called Flowminder, designed to map population movements in the aftermath of natural disasters for the sake of emergency rescue and relief.

It’s just one of many projects that is part of what some are referring to as digital epidemiology – a field of otherwise traditional scientific research that, increasingly, has come to rely on digital or computational methods to measure health and the spread of disease.

But while epidemiology has always been about using big datasets – long before the somewhat ambiguous buzzword “big data” came into…

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Systems Innovation | Geoff Mulgan and Charlie Leadbeater | January 2013 | Nesta

A terrific synopsis of a recent paper authored by social innovation leaders Charlie Leadbeater and Geoff Mulgan from NESTA in the UK as told by David Ing. There are many systems thinking takes on social innovation that get both the innovation wrong and the systems thinking, but this isn’t one of them. Leadbeater and Mulgan have a more sophisticated view of systems than many out there and it is refreshing to see it. David’s summary is outstanding, too for those not able to get to the full paper right away (which is a good read).

In brief. David Ing.

For innovators looking for an applied view of systems thinking, @GeoffMulgan and @LeadbeaterCh have written chapters for Nesta (the UK innovation foundation) on Systems Innovation.  The chapters are bundled in a single volume.

Systems Innovation (Nesta, 2013)

Here’s an outline, with some highlights from the text.

Joined-Up Innovation:  What is Systemic Innovation and How Can It Be done Effectively (Geoff Mulgan)

  • Introduction
  • 1. Background and definitions
    • Definitions
      • … we can define systemic innovation as an interconnected set of innovations, where each influences the other, with innovation both in the parts of the system and in the ways in which they interconnect.
    • The impulse to be systemic
      • Figures like Norbert Wiener, Gregory Bateson, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Stafford Beer and Geoffrey Vickers turned systems thinking into a coherent field. [….] Complexity thinking provided a parallel set of ideas from the 1980s onwards, led by figures such as Ilya Prigogine and Stuart Kauffman, while one strand…

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Google’s “20% time,” which brought you Gmail and AdSense, is now as good as dead

Interesting to see that one of the most innovative companies that is responsible for so many of the most powerful technological/communication innovations ever is getting so focused on doing things with what it has and forgetting how it got there. Perhaps this new approach will work better and it challenges the idea that 20% time can scale and scale across conditions, but hearing things like “we are too busy” to take the time is concerning. What do you think of the future of 20% time?

education & learningevaluationsystems thinkingUncategorized

Scaling Education: The Absurd Case of the MOOC

Theatre at the Temple of Apollo

Theatre at the Temple of Apollo

The Chronicle of Higher Education (online) recently reported results of a survey looking at faculty teaching on MOOC’s (massive open online course) and found much interest and expectation around this new format.

The survey, conducted by The Chronicle, attempted to reach every professor who has taught a MOOC. The online questionnaire was sent to 184 professors in late February, and 103 of them responded.

Hype around these new free online courses has grown louder and louder since a few professors at Stanford University drew hundreds of thousands of students to online computer-science courses in 2011. Since then MOOCs, which charge no tuition and are open to anybody with Internet access, have been touted by reformers as a way to transform higher education and expand college access. Many professors teaching MOOCs had a similarly positive outlook: Asked whether they believe MOOCs “are worth the hype,” 79 percent said yes.

The survey of professors was not scientific, particularly because it was of those who are already teaching MOOC’s, but it paints a picture of enthusiasm among those — many who were initially reticent about the potential of online education at that scale – engaged with the medium.

Global Potential vs Global Hype

NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman, never one to resist enthusiasm for global movements, speaks of the MOOC as a revolution. Friedman suggests how a MOOC-driven education system could potentially change foreign aid given its promise to do good things.

Anant Agarwal, the former director of M.I.T.’s artificial intelligence lab, is now president of edX, a nonprofit MOOC that M.I.T. and Harvard are jointly building. Agarwal told me that since May, some 155,000 students from around the world have taken edX’s first course: an M.I.T. intro class on circuits. “That is greater than the total number of M.I.T. alumni in its 150-year history,” he said.

Yes, only a small percentage complete all the work, and even they still tend to be from the middle and upper classes of their societies, but I am convinced that within five years these platforms will reach a much broader demographic. Imagine how this might change U.S. foreign aid. For relatively little money, the U.S. could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite in any Egyptian who wanted to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic.

For Friedman and many of those writing on MOOCs, the potential for this new format to bring the world’s best higher education to anyone, anywhere, in any country is enormous. It is an example of taking an innovation to scale on perhaps the most extreme. With the click of a mouse the entire world can learn together easily.

Except, it is a lie.

Writing as a guest on the Worldwise blog as part of the Chronicle of Higher Education, professor of writing and rhetoric Ghanashyam Sharma  puts truth to the lie of the modern online education movement’s hype. In an article called A MOOC Delusion: Why Visions to Educate the World Are Absurd, Sharma illustrates the faulty thinking that underpins much of the MOOC enthusiasm for transforming global education. His critique is less about MOOC’s as an educational vehicle in itself, but the global, culture-free scale at which they seek to operate.

There is a dire need for some healthy skepticism among educators about the idea that MOOCs are a wonderful means to go global in order to do good. For our desire to educate the whole world from the convenience of our laptops to be translated into any meaningful effect, we need more research about how students learn in massive open online platforms, and a better understanding of how students from different academic, cultural, social, and national backgrounds fare in such spaces.

Education at Scale

Drawing on his own personal experience with teaching in different contexts, beginning with Nepal and then moving to the University of Louisville and now SUNY Stony Brook, Sharma points to the subtleties in cultural learning styles that did not translate from space to space. He speaks of enormous challenges and, fortunately, the opportunity to meet these with resources to aid him in adapting his teaching from context to context. In doing so, he points to the myth that the global classroom will be filled with people all learning the same way, from a compatible perspective, and using the same language. Even simple differences in the way he presents as a teacher can change the manner in which students learn – and those differences are rooted in culture.

As a teacher myself, I know much of what he writes. Even a ‘simple’ face-to-face graduate course presents considerable pedagogical challenges for me. As an instructor  in public health I need to consider things like:

  • Disciplinary background. Each discipline has communication ‘sub-cultures’ and traditions that differ. A student with a sociology background might be used to rhetoric while one from the basic sciences may be used to communicating through technical reports. Each discipline also uses language in different ways, with terms unique to that discipline.
  • Cultural backgrounds. Students from around the world will present differently in the way they approach the material, the presentation of arguments, and the level of participation in class. Even within a narrow band of cultural contexts that present within my classroom (usually there is perhaps 10-20 per cent of students are international) I am always amazed at the nuances that play out in the classroom. Race, gender and language all add additional complex layers that would require volumes to unpack here.
  • Personality and motivation. Students that are more reserved in class will experience each lesson differently than those who are outgoing. Personality and motivation change the type of discussions learners engage in and shape their interactions with other students. This is not to say that one personality style is better than the other, but whether you’re introverted or extraverted, confident, clear spoken or highly social shapes the classroom. Face-to-face encounters allows for some modulation of these effects to encourage participation with those of different needs.
  • Literacy. Whether it prose, numeracy, or discipline-specific language use, the literacy of students is tested when they have to take in material — whether through lecture, small groups, video, audio or text — and convey arguments.

These are constraints (and opportunities) in most modern universities, whether the course is delivered face-to-face or online. The amount of effort to engage a room full of eager learners is enormous if I attend to these various issues. As an educator, it is effort that I believe makes for a good experience for everyone and is a joyous part of the job. But I am speaking to a room of about 25 graduate students at one of the best universities in the world who are all present and sharing the same environmental context even if it is as a visiting student.

What happens when we are teaching to a ‘room’ of 150,000 people from all over the world?

Understanding scale

I do believe that we can learn much from online courses and that much can be conveyed via the MOOC that brings content to the world in ways that are appropriate and useful for a general audience. I am not against the MOOC, but I do think we need to carefully consider what it means to take education to scale and ask some deeper questions about what the learning experience is intended to achieve.

We need to design our educational experience using the same principles or design thinking we would apply to any other service of value.

The lie is in believing true education of a global audience in the rich way that a university or college intends is not only possible, but appropriate. What is being lost in the effort to make a common experience among a global classroom? Are we just sending out information or are we creating a learning environment? To what degree does the MOOC serve this purpose well. That is what a designer might start with as they move to asking how might we bring learning from one context to another.

Ghanashyam Sharma points to the folly in those who think the jump from culture to culture can be easily made when teaching the world at one time. The MOOC offers enormous potential to re-shape the way people learn and promoting access to content and expertise that many in this world could have only dreamed of years ago. But the naivete that such learning can be done in an monocultural way without losing something special about the context in which people learn and use what they learn might lead to some expensive lessons.

Sharma is right to ask for more research. Thomas Friedman is right to inspire us to think of creative ways to bring the wealth of the west’s educational treasures to the globe. The key is to figure out what parts of this global vision are real or possible, which are illusions, and which are delusions.

Unlike the auditorium at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (pictured above) the audience for what we teach now are not from one place, time and shared cultural perspective; they represent the world. Without an understanding of what scale means in education we might be producing more ignorance than knowledge.

Photo: Cameron Norman