Monday, November 21, 2016

Post-Truth and Fake News

Yes, by all means, do something about the fake news that is propagating through Facebook and Twitter. But let's not forget that we have been in the post-truth era for some time (indeed, one wonders whether we ever entered the truth era in the first place).

After all, the rise of the post-truth era is made possible by the failures of the education system to prepare people to identify truth for themselves, and the failure of traditional media to present the news in an honest and forthright manner.

It's true, Facebook could easily cut down on the torrent of fake news stories circulating through social media simply by blocking access to a few sites. We could begin with the obvious: the Beaverton, the Onion, the Manatee. That would prevent sites like Infowars from portraying their parody as fact. And we could also cut off blatant miscreants like the Rightists.

Some of the more prominent election memes were instigated by for example: "I was paid $3000 to protest a Trump Rally"). No, it's not the ABC network. That's - the '' is in there because the news was lumped in with Disney's other properties for cross-promotion purposes.

But these 'fake news' sites are actually pretty funny. And it would be a shame to censor them. And if people can't tell the fake news from the real news, it's mostly because the real news does such an excellent job of parodying itself.

We would like to believe the real news can be trusted. But time and again it proves the opposite. Let's look at exactly the sort of thing we are faced with when truing to fine the 'truth' in traditional media:

  • Polls and Surveys. Yes we all love 538 (and in Canada, 308). But that doesn't make up for the plastering of almost-daily poll results in every media outlet in the country (along with the usual made-up 'expanations' of why the polls went up or down). Polls are not news; punditry about pools is barely disguised fiction.
  • Anniversaries. How much of traditional media 'news' content is filled with the observation that it was '50 years since...' or '100 years ago on this day...' and so on. We have holidays for that! But of course, the traditional media also reports that it's a holiday, same time, every year, as though it's news.
  • Endorsing the corporate candidate. In an article quoting Barack Obama as criticizing fake news the Providence Journal does not even not the irony of its lede: "Hillary Clinton was the choice of nearly every American newspaper editorial board. It didn't matter." In Canada, we had a similar case where every newspaper endorsed former prime minister Stephen  Harper. These newspapers are looking out for their corporate owners - and their readers see it plainly.
  • Uncritical reporting. It's not just Donald Trump who was allowed to say pretty much anything without correction. The news media is full of people making preposterous claims. Where is the filter that allows us to screen out claims that Mexico will pay for the wall, or that corporate tax cuts will create jobs? 
  • Reliable sources. They aren't. When analyzed the election, it found that the sources of most of the lies weren't the campaigns themselves, but the supposedly trustworthy institutions like the parties' national committees. We have to learn that institutions lie, they lie frequently, and they lie very well, and the traditional media actually helps them do this.
  • Media hype. Why do we even have a hype cycle?  It's driven by the traditionmal media's propensity to make (or repeat) outlandish claims for often dubious technologies. Even inventions of some value fall victim (and are therefore unfairly criticized). The hype has a predictable pattern than should make it clear it's not news: "a hotbed topic; a sexy, futuristic, ‘cyberpunk’ technology; and the potential for financial returns."
  • Fear. Irrational fear. I just got email from Forbes saying "what are you going to do when you lose your job in 6 months?" Never mind that this will happen to a small percentage of us (and that Forbes readers are generally able to bounce back). The purpose here is to make us terrified and afraid. Just as are the crime stories, the immigrant stories, etc.
  • Supermoon and other misleading trivia. To read the traditional media, it was a once-in-a-lifetime event to see a 'supermoon'. Not counting the supermoons of 2011, 2013, and 2014, to name a few. Glorifying even the most trivial (non-controversial) thing seems to be what the traditional media do. Even then, they get many of the details wrong. But it's far easier than reporting the news.
  • Advertorial - not to be confused with advertisements that look like news stories, these are news stories that are advertisements. You see them on your evening television news every day - a promotion for a new restaurant, a plug for a movie, a story about the next new Christmas toy 'craze'. Or those Black Friday stories (which are really odd coming from Canadian television).
  • Obsessively chasing non-scandals. For example, spending more time talking about Hillary Clinton's emails than all policy issues combined.Even it it were a scandal (and it genuinely wasn't) it wouldn't have deserved this much coverage. What wasn't covered? Anything to do with policy.
  • Unnamed sources. As Jeff Jarvis says, "the source matters". Yet in so many cases, the source in the traditional media is not named. We don't know whether it's a campaign insider or someone posing as a campaign insider.
  • The echo chamber. We hear many complaints about social media being an echo chamber. But traditional media are the biggest echo chamber of them all. We hear from the same sources, the same spokesmen, the same suits and the same pundits. 
  • Fake experts. Who are the experts called upon by traditional media? Often, they are sources provided by lobbyists and speakers' bureaus. As this article notes, "Being published in the media sometimes provides commentators with “expert” status even if they lack expertise on the subject matter being discussed and have no relevant research on the topic." 
  • Reposting press releases - when I ran the Moncton Free Press I would see the exact same content coming from the local newspaper site and Canada NewsWire. There's nothing inherently wrong with a press release, but the newspaper was attributing it to 'STAFF' and passing it off as news, which is blatantly dishonest. The practice never slowed, not even when they were called out on it.
  • Sloppy sloppy sloppy reasoning. The traditional media commits logical fallacies on a regular basis. Surprisingly, when I pointed this out to them, they changed nothing.
  • Poor design. We get reams of old articles shared through social media pretending to be articles from today. OK, sure, it was wrong of the conservative news site to promote this article on changing the electoral college vote in Maryland. But if NBC News made the date much more prominent, it would be impossible to fool people. But that would cut down on archive views.
  • Nationalism. Being Canadian, I am exposed to a lot of nationalism in media - not only our home-grown nationalism, but also from the U.S. (of course) and even from places like Britain, China and Russia. It just underlines to me how far at odd are nationalism and truth.And just how much it is relied upon by traditional media.
  • Think tanks. These supposedly 'independent' voices are not. They are funded by various interests (historically from the far right but now from across the spectrum) to spead misleading research and (sometimes) outright lies. In Canada we have the Fraser Institute, the C.D. Howe Institute, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and many more. These should never be given an uncritical platform. But this is what the traditional media gives them every day. 
  • Institution envy. There are a few sources that make the traditional media go gaga. Thus we get 'The Harvard Study...', the 'Oxford report...', a 'Yale analysis...' and so on. There's nothing about the source of these items that makes them more likely to be true, nor more important, yet traditional media can't get enough of them, even though they collectively exhibit a pronounced slant.
As Jessi Hempel writes, "In the past, the sources of accurate information were recognizable enough that phony news was relatively easy for a discerning reader to identify and discredit. The problem, (Snopes managing editor Brooke) Binkowski believes, is that the public has lost faith in the media broadly — therefore no media outlet is considered credible any longer"

We won't solve our problems with the truth by suppressing fake news. We see this in less democratic regimes, and it's never successful. We solve the problem only by having some news agencies that get it right - that are trustworthy, and can be known to be trustworthy.

And note: it's not enough to create a news media that I think can be trusted. The disaffected inhabit all sides of the political spectrum. The media needs to win back the Sanders supporters, the Trump supporters, and sceptical readers in Moscow and Beijing.

Yes, the failure of education and growth of inequality have been reported elsewhere. As Ben Williamson writes, " the statistics from the EU referendum indicate that the vote for leaving the EU was concentrated in geographical areas already most affected by growing economic, cultural and social inequalities, as well as by physical pain and mental ill-health and rising mortality rates."

And as he notes, "Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller of the think tank Demos wrote a report 5 years ago that highlighted a need to teach young people critical thinking and scepticism online to ‘allow them to better identify outright lies, scams, hoaxes, selective half-truths, and mistakes.’"

But let's not blame the less-educated. The most educated people in society have made this the environment we're living in.


Backchannel - According to Snopes, fake news is not the problem
Code Acts in Education -Social media and public pedagogies of political mis-education
Digital Digs -Pluralism and the nonmodern, nonliberal society - How to spot fake news
Fast Company - How We Got to Post-Truth
Fast Company - Fake U.S. News is a Global Problem
Medium - A Call for Cooperation Against Fake News
Quartz - Oxford Dictionaries declare 'Post'Truth' the word of the year.
the Conversation (Andina Dwifatm) - Everyone’s an expert: in the digital era, fakes need to be exposed
Washington Post. Donald Trump is crashing the system. Journalists need to build a new one

Friday, October 21, 2016

Open Practices

This post is a response to a request for my thoughts on the value of open practices and methodologies for putting them into practice. 

1. Do you have any insight into working with educators to help them see the value in open practice, to help share their learning more openly, and how we might scaffold the entire process?  It is in building the compelling case for change that I am having some challenges.  I work to craft messages for specific audiences but I am missing the mark in helping education leaders see the VALUE in open practice. 

My first though on this is that you are not alone in this experience. Proponents of open practice (open anything, actually) have experienced difficulties in translating the idea into practice. People like Stevan Harnad and Peter Suber have talked about the same phenomenon with respect to open publishing, for example. I've had pushback in my own organization when promoting openness. And  I've had numerous people tell me about the same thing when I've presented on this. The objections break down into two major categories:

- first, there is a reluctance to share based on a fear of consequences. Some fear their own work isn't worth sharing. There's a fear of embarrassing oneself and looking foolish in public. Others (quite reasonably) are concerned about violating privacy and confidentiality (aka FOIPP). Others argue that people can speak more freely in private spaces. There is concern about practices (such as sharing of copyright materials) that might have to be discontinued if done openly. And there are concerns about the consequences, such as being fired, if people dislike what they see being shared.

These are legitimate concerns and cannot be dismissed lightly, or at all. People need private spaces. Any discussion of working openly has to include a discussion of when it's possible and appropriate to work privately. At the same time, there's a 'flipping of the switch' that needs to happen. Currently, the default is to do everything privately, and make an exception for sharing. The challenge is to make the default to work openly, and make an exception for keeping things private. This is the trend behind initiatives such as 'open data' and 'open science'.

The key here is that flipping the switch has to be seen as safe. Nobody wants to open up if it's going to blow up on them. There needs to be a space for confidentiality, and there needs to be a sense of security about the implications of being open.

- second, many people simply don't care. This is especially the case among academics, and has been well documented. All else being equal, people will not change their practices. They see no compelling reason to work openly. In addition to exposing them to risk, as noted above, it creates overhead and paperwork. Institutions say they want staff to share openly but in practice are nervous about what staff will share (this is especially strong in government, I can attest) and so they put in policies and procedures (for example, I've see all of these in action: requirement for legal review, requirement for IP screening, requirement for conformity to ADA, requirement for bilingual versions, requirement for institutional wordmark and branding).

Commercial publishers have taken advantage of this and though they also create overhead they have removed much of the work and risk involved in publishing, and they offer reward in terms of promotion criteria and sometimes financial incentives. This only exists for certain categories, however; we don't really see the equivalent for classroom teachers (though things like Discovery Education Network have made some inroads here). And of course they often limit access to those who can pay for it (and create a rights and payment overhead in the process).

To date, at the institutional level, only one strategy has countered this: an openness mandate. We see examples in freedom of information legislation, open data policies, funder requirements for open access publication, and institutional archiving mandates. These requirements create a lot of pushback but create much more openness than we see in the same environment without a mandate. Obviously a mandate is not an ideal strategy. It's hard to argue for the value of something while at the same time being in a position of having to force people to do it.

So, what then?

My best results have come when I ask people to stop thinking of themselves as teachers and start thinking of themselves as learners. By changing the role I am changing how they perceive they might benefit from open practice. That said, it's not one big giant step; it isn't the idea of openness as a default that attracts people, it's the idea of a bit of sharing producing a bit of benefit. So I find that the value is seen in open practices, rather than the concept of openness itself.

For example: when we were developing MuniMall (an online learning, resources and knowledge community for the municipal sector in Alberta) we asked town managers how they got answers to problems that would happen from day to day (where to send a grader for repair, new guidelines for sewer inspection, examples of planning law litigation, etc). The run-away winner was: pick up the phone and call someone they know. There is no questioning the benefit of direct person-to-person sharing. They don't even think of it as 'open practice' (though of course, it is).

It's a small jump from this to seeing the benefit electronic media. A lot of discussion boards operate like this, with a question-answer format (you see this in communities of practice, for example)  but they're cumbersome and people don't use them if the community is too small. We can draw out three examples that do work, providing enough people get involved: direct person-to-person text messaging; text messaging in an open environment such as Twitter; and question-answer sites like Stack Exchange. None of these by itself is sufficient, but the set of them work quite well together, and are often more convenient than making a phone call (especially for people who have a lot of client-facing work and can't stop to answer a call).

In a lot of environments, though, these media are used as broadcast media by the administration. There is a tendency to 'clamp down' on official channels (for example, I've seen cases where administrators terminated a mailing list because it was being used too much). Once people see the benefits of these simple forms of working openly they can be encouraged to take control of them as a means of managing their own learning and development. The technologies that seem to work the best, to my observation, are those which preserve the following values:

- relevance - the communications are directly relevant, when and where needed. They offer means to focus on exactly what you need (that's why we see a progression from text messaging to question-answer sites) in a format that is directly usable (a short web page as compared to a two week class).
- usability - they don't require any extra work to learn how to use. There isn't 'navigation'. The interfaces are intuitive and predictable.
- interactive - they support dialogue, and not just broadcast. Questions can be refined, particular circumstances addressed. They provide a means for the same people asking the questions to also answer the questions.
More here:

Over time, this evolves into open practice. This is a desirable result. But it isn't the goal. The goal is to help people with learning tasks in their day-to-day lives, and to help them reflect on that. As they begin to see what is working for them, they begin to see that it works for others.

2. How does open practice impact knowledge mobilization? Are we able to show that open practice can impact student learning much faster than traditional forms of professional learning for teachers?

This question has a half dozen separate questions built into it. These make it difficult to offer a single response. Here's a quick reprise of some of the questions:

- how are we defining open practice? As suggested above, it's really a suite of tools and methodologies that leads to an overall default of openness.
- is knowledge mobilization a desirable outcome? It has overtones (as does knowledge translation) of the idea of diffusing knowledge from central sources.
- is the objective to learn faster? To learn better? Or to learn better things?
- how would we characterize more traditional forms of professional learning for teachers? None? PD day? Staff room gossip? Board retreats?
- what does it mean to show open learning has had an impact?

My comments will address each of these in turn.

- open practice

As I've suggested above, there are gradations of open practice. It's not something we simply turn on and off. Moreover, it's not clear that 'open practice' as a goal in and of itself is desirable. It is an outcome of various tools and methodologies, but the objective is always to provide learning and performance support. Environments vary, so this discussion has to begin with the question, what would provide learning and performance support? What are we trying to accomplish here?

I've been doing workshops on personal learning with educators in various countries. The hardest thing to do is to shift them from thinking of teaching strategies to thinking of learning strategies. I use a type of format used for software design, working back from objectives to tools to a definition of a minimal viable product (MVP). I find participants focus on access to information they need to do their jobs - calendars, forms, resources. So it leads me to think that, before asking them to work openly, to consider whether they are working in an open environment. It seems to me that they are less likely to share if they're not working in a sharing environment.

This works both ways. A large organization I know embarked on a program "Dialogue on the future of X". They're assembling panels and tiger teams. There's a video and web page and brochure to promote the initiative. But in this entire environment, there is no place for individuals to contribute their comments or take part in the dialogue. I think it would be difficult to promote any sort of open practice after such a process. But maybe this degree of openness isn't desired. There can be many reasons to moderate or control an open discussion; we've seen discussions get really out of control on the internet.

I think understanding the need for openness is the first step, where openness is defined as much as possible in terms of specific types of information and resources, different types of tools and methodologies, and different degrees of openness. Simply being behind a password barrier doesn't necessarily mean something is closed, but if everything is behind a password we need to question what objective the password protection is intended to achieve.

- knowledge mobilization

The origin of 'knowledge mobilization I would say is in the concept of 'knowledge translation', which is essentially the idea researchers and theorists (or consultants and executives, in a dystopian version) create knowledge, which is then 'translated' into practical tools and processes. By using the term 'mobilization' we are agreeing explicitly that knowledge originates not only in the back room, but also in the everyday practices and experiences of practitioners, so that there needs to be a two-way flow of information and communication.

Given such a characterization, the argument to the value of openness is very short: without this communication, which by definition requires a degree of openness, there is no knowledge mobilization, and therefore, no improvement of practices. But even here there is nuance. Some practices require the shared development of expertise (the best way to move a patient, the best use of a Smart Board to collaborate in a class) while in others there is a more regulatory or policy-driven flavour (safety hazard recognition and protocols, gender and diversity issues awareness, terms of employment and contracts).

But moreover, in some cases there simply isn't knowledge, and the deployment of knowledge mobilization might be inappropriate. I think for example of a lot of the 'advice' I received before teaching in First Nations communities. Though there are some culturally-driven tendencies, the generalizations about working on First Nations reserves turned out uniformly to have exceptions. The 'knowledge' of 'teaching in First Nations communities' doesn't exist; at best what we have are shared stories, experiences and histories. So there could and probably should be sharing, sure, but it's something different here.

- objectives

The objective of learning technology and practices (such as 'openness') is very frequently stated to be "faster" learning. It would not take a lot of effort to compile a list of vendors with products and theorists with theories about how to learn a subject faster. It's probably second only to the promises to increase test scores and to help people learn the subject better. These form the basis for an 'outcomes oriented' philosophy of education.

What you may have noticed in the section on 'open practice' above that I did not talk about outcomes; I talked about the need for different types of resources, tools, and degrees of openness. I find a definition of outcomes to be a lot less useful in practice than it might appear to be. The groups of educators I have worked with may have commonalities, but each has a different set of outcomes they require from learning and support resources and technology. The same is true, I would say, of the students in their classroom.

Part of the reason I ask educators to focus on their own training and development needs is that it forces them to recognize this.

Key, I think, to seeing the value of openness is seeing how it contributes to one's own outcomes, rather than to policy or institutionally mandated outcomes. Learning and development is personal in a way that other aspects of employment are not. There's an old naval slogan, "One hand for the ship, one hand for yourself." Learning and development is most often thought of as being the one hand for oneself. It not only prepares a person for their current position, it prepares them for their next position.

- traditional forms of learning

All the data and surveys I see about corporate and professional learning suggest that in-person classes remain the dominant for of learning. The nature and structure of these classes has changed a lot over the last few decades, from lecture and demonstration to a lot more collaborative activities and hands-on work (think of the 3-day f2f session/retreat you just completed).

But as I mentioned above, when a person is on the job (that is, the 95% of the time they are not in a class or at a retreat) the predominant form of learning is simply to 'ask someone'. As people like Jay Cross and Harold Jarche have emphasized, informal learning constitutes the bulk of workplace learning. This is no doubt as true for teachers as it is for board members. It's even true to a large degree for students themselves (through the percentages are different).

I think the process of introducing open practices in a traditional environment is one where the SAMR (Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition) model applies. We don't begin by thinking about how we are replacing traditional practices. Instead, we look at these practices and ask where tools, resources and openness can be applied in such a way as to make the traditional practice more effective or more efficient. Only once we have moved to the new environment will other affordances become visible, and at that point we can think of augmenting and ultimately redefining a practice as 'open'.

In a sense we're turning the question of how openness 'can impact student learning much faster than traditional forms of professional learning' on its head. The new practice (whether it's a type of openness or, more likely, a type of technology that will ultimately lead to more openness) would not be implemented unless it 'can impact student learning much faster than traditional forms of professional learning' (or some similar statement of objectives and values).

- impact

Let me quote you: "The second structure we are trying to interrupt is this the 'flow' of learning from Superintendent to Principal to Teacher.  The concept that we need to 'feed' teachers in this way is outdated in a world where teachers can access learning anytime and anywhere.  I argue that a higher yield strategy is to encourage teachers to become self-directed learners and to teach them where to find what they need, how to build a PLN, and how to be savvy in accessing learning online."

I agree with this. It follows, though, that an assessment of the impact is not going to be found in demonstrations of better learning by means of tests or evaluations against a body of content. Nor will it be found in demonstrations of better learning by means of tests or evaluations of their students against a body of content. We're looking for an outcome where teachers become self-directed learners, and the only measure of that is whether teachers direct their own learning (here defined for the sake of argument as knowing "where to find what they need, how to build a PLN, and how to be savvy in accessing learning online", though again this will vary for each of them).

The fundamental question, I think, is whether that (teachers becoming self-directed learners) is valued by administrators and supervisors, and if not currently, then what would lead them to value it.

The answer to this, I would suggest, is created with a two part structure consisting of a value proposition and a logic model.

The value proposition is a statement of what administrators and supervisors actually do value, and how it is measured. The value needs to be stated as outcomes, as concrete and tangible benefits the program produces. We need to be careful not to overgeneralize about this; the 'knowledge' of 'satisfying the needs of administrators and supervisors' doesn't exist. Each will be different: some will be looking for financial efficiencies, some will be looking for improved test scores, some will be looking for better community relations, and some will have very specific learning outcomes they need to see. What's important is that there needs to be a value proposition, something you know the administrators will support.

The logic model is a description of how the effort that will be undertaken leads to a satisfaction of the value proposition. The logic model is necessary because there isn't (and never will be) a strict measurement of cause and effect. You can't measure 'x' in the program and see it correlate to 'y' in the value proposition. What the logic model does is to show how implementation of the program as a whole will implement the value proposition as a whole. It's a way to connect the idea of enabling employees to meet their objectives with the idea of enabling boards and supervisors to meet their objectives.

In my own work I've tried to hit several value propositions over the years with different logic models: self-directed learning (SDL) reduces recruitment costs by enabling a pool of applicants to quality themselves; SDL reduces retention costs by enabling career advancement and personal development; SDL reduces administrative overhead by enabling peer-to-peer knowledge sharing (thus reducing the need for courses); SDL creates motivation by enabling a teacher to be a member of a professional community, motivation results in greater enthusiasm in the classroom, which results in increased motivation on the part of students, and hence better grades. Etc.

In sum…

Open practice isn't a specific thing: it's a set of practices, tools, and policies the combination of which results in what we might call 'openness by default', but which has a specific objective the ability of people to support their own learning and development more easily and effectively than before.

Boards and supervisors might not directly value people being able to support their own learning and development themselves, but they can be shown how this leads to benefits that they do value, such as lower costs and more effective teaching.

All of this needs to be developed and implemented iteratively; there are no general principles. Different learning objectives are supported by different technologies, leading to more or less great degrees of openness, and these will lead to varying board and supervisor objectives in different ways. 

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Diversity and Diversity Training

Donald Clark appears to be settling into the role of the voice of the closed society. His latest foray into this is his recent column arguing that diversity is "wrong-headed". Leaving aside the question of which monoculture we would settle upon were we to do away with diversity (I'm thinking Hopi, maybe, or perhaps Maori) his argument is based on a short-sighted and narrow interpretation of what diversity means.

Clark's point of departure is Goran Adamson’s TheTrojan Horse. It is naturally not available as open content, so we have to rely on additoonal sources to look at the argument. An earlier report of his, Immigrants and Political Participation, he argues "successful assimilation of immigrants mainly is achieved by downplaying the exotic implication of group-based difference." (p.40)

Terri Murray summarizes, "multicultural ideology makes a fetish, like the racial theories of yore, of ethnic diversity... the multicultural view of immigrants doesn’t treat them as individuals who have a basic human need for self-determination; rather, 'the immigrant' is an abstract type, a species, a race." Worse, writes Murray, "When it comes to ethnic groups themselves, the rights of dissenting minorities within these groups are rarely defended. That’s because the multicultural agenda treats ethnic subcultures as homogeneous groups."

Clark takes this one step further, addressing diversity training. He writes, "Major studies from Dobbin, Kalev and Kochan show that diversity training does not increase productivity and may, in fact, produce a backlash. Most don’t know if it works as evaluations are as rare as unicorns"

Clark makes his case in ten points, and we'll address them in turn. The headings are Clark's, not mine.

1. Ideology of Diversity

The case in both Adamson and Clark is that the choice is being force upon us between individual freedom and the rights of a culture to assert itself. We'll revisit this theme many times. But to begin, the argument in favour of diversity is itself being presented as an ideology, against which no dissent is allowed. 

"‘Diversity’ is a word that cannot be questioned," writes Clark. "The rhetoric that surrounds diversity in itself seems to censor debate, a diversity of views being the first victim."

The existence of Adamson's report and Clark's column are, of course, counter-examples to this proposition, and there is no shortage of writing against the concept of diversity available for anyone to read. A quick search reveals the article Against Diversity published by the National Association of Scholars, a similar article published in the Economist, Walter Benn Michaels against diversity in New Left Review, and the list goes on and on.

Indeed, I wonder just what sort of opposition it is that they feel has been prohibited. Some of the more extreme expressions against diversity (of which, again, there have been many) speak of dress codes, language restrictions, and prohibitions against some religions. At a certain point the opposition to diversity tends to blend with outright racism. It is no surprise to see people react poorly to this (though one observes in the Trump and UKIP campaigns a suggestion that even this maay be tolerable).

Clark seems to suggest that this 'ideology' in favour of diversity is what supports the phenomenon of diversity training, despite evidence speaking against it. "The vast amount of time and money spent on diversity training, when evaluated, is found wanting, mostly ineffective, even counter-productive," he writes. It's an old argument, a favourite of the Harvard Business Review set, and not surprising to see it repeated here.

The same could be said (and, indeed, has been said) about training in general. Yet workplace training persists, not because whatever it promotes is held forth as some sort of ideology, but because workplace training officers don't know better, and because managers cling to traditional and outmoded views about training.

It's not surprising at all that forced diversity training can be ineffective; people respond poorly to coercion. But at the same time,  "When attendance is voluntary, diversity training is followed by an increase in managerial diversity," said Alexandra Kalev, a sociologist at the University of Arizona, (once of the researchers cited above).

The 'ideology of diversity' argument is a red herring. It is not based in fact. And it fails as an explanation of the failure of training.

2. Groupthink

Clark writes, "Companies, worldwide spend many hundreds of millions of dollars each year on diversity training. The tragic truth is that most of this is wasted. Groupthink seems to be at the heart of the matter." 

'Groupthink' is a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis to describe what occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment” (p. 9).

Is that what is happening here? Clark cites "groupthink among compliance training companies, who simply do what they do without supporting evidence and tout ineffective ‘courses’. Groupthink in HR, who find it easier to just run ‘courses’ rather than tackle real business problem." This sounds like the problem of a monoculture, not one particular to proponents of diversity.

Indeed, diversity - a broader sense of diversity than the caricature being criticized by Clark here - is often offered as a response against groupthink. As this article states, "Groupthink occurs when a highly homogeneous, cohesive group fails to critically analyse and evaluate alternative ideas for the sake of harmony and conformity. In such a group, disagreement with the consensus is discouraged, which eliminates independent thinking and creativity."

It is important to understand that diversity is more than the mere celebration of exotic cultures. There are many ways in which people can be diverse, and the promotion of diversity is centered around encouragement of distinct perspectives and points of view, not just the elimination of offensive behaviour.

This is called 'thought diversity'. "Thought diversity goes beyond the affirmation of equality - simply recognizing differences and responding to them. Instead, the focus is on realizing the full potential of people, and in turn the organization, by acknowledging and appreciating the potential promise of each person’s unique perspective and different way of thinking”, summarizes a 2013 study by Deloitte Consulting.

3. Ill-defined

It may be that Clark was thinking along similar lines as he wrote his piece, as his next argument focuses on the vagueness of the term 'diversity'.

"One could invoke the idea that individuals are unique, and this uniqueness is paramount. Unfortunately, it then focuses on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs, or other ideologies," he writes.

What Clark sees to be doing is drawing a distinction between what might be called individual-based diversity and group-based diversity. Indivisual-based diversity might include a person's unique point of view, perhaps their income level, and the like, while (he says) "But ethnicity, gender and so on are terms associated with the collective, not the individual."

I'm sure this would come as a surprise to people who happen to find themselves Chinese, women, or gay. I still remember seeing a documentary about race, where the speaker was objecting to the idea of people being 'colour blind'. "My blackness is who I am," said the man. "It is myself, it is my identity."

And that's the thing about race, culture, religion, gender, orientation, and the other terms associated, as Clark says, with the collective. There is no 'black collective'. Or, to put it another way, all forms of fiversity apply equally well to the group and to the individual. It is a simple and fundamental point of logic, known since Aristotle, that any property can be used to define a category.

One of the fundamental elements of diversity training is the effort to show people are fundamentally individuals and that it is inappropriate to treat them as though they were all the same. Even in a close-knit community (the Mormons, say, or Cook Islanders) it is a category error to create and apply 'collective' properties (like, say, "all Mormons wear white shirts", or "all Cook Islanders love the ocean") to individuals.

We don't need to define diversity; only people consumed with group identity need to do that. The core idea behind diversity is that we encourage and respect differences between individuals. The prrinciple is the sae whether we are talking about their race or their taste in motocycles.

4, Lazy Cultural Relativism

As someone who has spent a lifetime as one who would be defined as a 'cultural relativist', I can say with assurance that there is nothing lazy about it. It is a constant effort to remind myself that other people may have different values, beliefs, and world-views than I do.

At the same time, I find that my own unique set of values, beliefs and world-views are substantially different from the majority, and I must struggle with this every day as well. For example, I believe that showing McDonalds advertising to children is morally wrong, I believe that people reason by means of similarity and metaphor, not logic and mathematics, and my world view does not include universals or laws of nature.

Clark writes, "a lazy cultural relativism descends, disallowing criticism of illiberal cultural norms. Freedom of speech is under attack from ‘trigger theory’, art is censored, honour crime not ruthlessly dealt with, FGM still prevalent. Any definition of diversity is glossed over and replaced with diversity plans."

This one-paragraph argument is itself lazy and poorly thought out. I understand that some people find the cultural practices of other cultures to be morally repugnant. I recognize they feel that way and may indeed even argue that way. Where we come into disagreement is when the other person represents their moral perspective as fact, and depicts their own culture as obviously superior to the other.

In the case of the four items listed by Clark, there are well-tolerated practices in my own culture, and his own culture, that are equally barbaric, and yet treated as normal. For example, one society that opposes 'honour killings' is fine with 'stand your ground' laws that permit legal homicide. Other societies that condemn female genital mutilation (FGM) as barbaric are fine with the routine practice of MGM (male genital mutilation).

For my own part, I believe that both murder and mutilation are both wrong, yet I have not found one culture on earth that believes these without reservation.

No, cultural relativism isn't lazy. Expressing a sanctimonious belief in your own world view is lazy. One-paragraph dismissals of difficult ethical philosophies are lazy.

5. Not an Intrinsic Good?

Clark argues that diversity is not an "intrinsic good", giving examples where sameness may be preferred to difference.

"Is polygamy better than monogamy? Will your coding team always benefit from having an even gender and ethnic mix or a ruthless focus on competence? Diversity rhetoric praises ethnic presence but could be a substitute for excellence and ideas?"

Clark slips into this short paragraph the old idea that support for diversity means sacrificing excellence. The suggestion is that by focusing on including (say) a person of colour on a team, we may be excluding a more qualified (or more competence, etc.) person who is not diverse.

This proposition depends on the idea that there is one set of properties - coding excellent, for example - that is relevant to team formation, and there are other sets of properties - cultural background, for example - that are not relevant. This presupposition depends in turn on the idea that the relevant set of properties could be identified and that differences in those properties could be measured in a statistically significant way.

And even if we can address all that it may well be that it is better overall to accept a less productive team in support of the principle that teams should be diverse. Because there is always more at stake than the performance of the individual team. If diversity is a value in society as a whole, this value may prevail whether or not it is a value in any particular case.

For example, consider airline pilots. It is arguable that we should ignore diversity in the cockpit because we want excellent pilots. But, first, it is arguable that even if women pilots aren't as good as men (a proposition which I doubt, by the way) it is demonstrably the case that they are good enough. And there is a need for girls to see examples of women pilots as role models.

This depends on the idea that diversity is a social good, of course. I believe it is - but again, this belief isn't a lazy belief, or even a popular belief. It most societies around the world, it is a minority belief. Which is what makes Clark's style in this article all the more astonishing.

6. Diversity as Conservatism

I don't automatically dismiss conservatism as wrong. But if it is, would it be an argument against diversity that it supports conservatism?

"Diversity is a deeply conservative idea masquerading as progressive," says Clark. "It replaces meritocracy with multiculturalism."

Let's stop right there for a moment. The concept of 'meritocracy' is deeply flawed and almost universally misapplied (this is the other part of the argument from the previous section). There are numerous arguments against the concept: it presupposes we can measure merit, it presupposes that merit reflects a person's worth, and it presupposes merit reflects an individual rather than their social of cultural background.

As Yong Zhao says, "The ideal of meritocracy is built on four assumptions. First, a society/authority can correctly identify the merit. Second, there are ways to accurately measure the merit. Third the merit is only individuals’ innate potential plus their efforts. In other words, it has nothing to do with their family background. Fourth, everyone has the same opportunity to develop the merit. None of these assumptions is true."

Moreover, meritocracy is morally wrong. As David Freedman writes, "Smart people should feel entitled to make the most of their gift. But they should not be permitted to reshape society so as to instate giftedness as a universal yardstick of human worth." Moreover, it is the gifts one has received in life that contribute to whatever qualities we call 'merit' - and luck does not convey any sort of moral primacy or quality of judgement. One only needs to observe the behaviour of the wealthy and gifted of British society to see that.

Where Clark is correct is that diversity brings with it difficult choices. As he observes, "From a feminist point of view, diversity may tolerate attitudes, cultural norms and behaviours that may prevent gender equality." Quite so. Nobody is automatically right in a diverse society. Every form of difference needs to, and has the right to, make a case. Ultimately it's about choice and deciding for oneself.

He also writes, " It prevents us from taking a secular view of the world, as we give in to relativism and acceptance." This is not true.I take a secular view of the world, as everyone knows. I also encourage those who wish to pursue a religious view of the world to do so. What 'diversity' means is that they can't force me to be religious, and I can't force them to be secular. Indeed, it's even a matter of bad taste to even try.

"The group trumps the individual," he writes. "It pits the poor against the poor. Ultimately, it is the dull traditionalism of conservatism." It does so only if we view these as struggles in which one or another type of diversity must ultimately prevail. But this is unreasonable. Nobody thinks that it is 'diversity' to hold that Sharia law ought to apply in all cases.

The people who oppose diversity are the ones pitting one group of people against another; they are, indeed, the ones who are representing them as groups in the first place.

7. Diversity does not lead to increased productivity

This was the major point raised by Adamson and others, and yet it begs the question: who said the objective of diversity was to increase productivity in the first place?

So we have Thomas Kochan saying, "There are no strong positive or negative effects of gender or racial diversity on business performance." But big deal. " According to the American Society for Training and Development's 2002 state of the training industry report, only one in 10 companies attempts to create results-based evaluations of its training programs."

Companies engage in diversity training to avoid litigation and human rights cases. They also do it because women and ethnic minorities (among others) are larger and larger parts of their customer base. To work in a global environment pretty much requires understanding of, and acceptance of, other cultures.

The five-year study referenced by Clark earlier and in this section provides an unambiguous statement in support of diversity:
Diversity is a reality in labor markets and customer markets today. To be successful in working with and gaining value from this diversity requires a sustained, systemic approach and long-term commitment. Success is facilitated by a perspective that considers diversity to be an opportunity for everyone in an organization to learn from each other how better to accomplish their work and an occasion that requires a supportive and cooperative organizational culture as well as group leadership and process skills that can facilitate effective group functioning.
The same authors continue:
training programs must help managers to develop the leadership and group process skills needed to facilitate constructive conflict and effective communication... raining programs that improve the skills of managers and team members may be particularly useful, but training alone is not likely to be sufficient. Organizations must also implement management and human resource policies and practices that inculcate cultures of mutual learning and cooperation. 
It's always a good idea to read the articles you cite.

8. Diversity shows virtually no effect

No doubt Clark means to say here that diversity training shows virtually no effect. Then it would make sense to quote Frank Dobbin saying "Practices that target managerial bias through…diversity training, show virtually no effect.”

Clark has cited this study numerous times through the years, though the number of citations it has received (969, according to Google Scholar) suggests that he protesteth too much when he says it was "ignored".  

It is worth noting, first of all, that Dobbin are not opposed to diversity itself. Indeed, the paper reads as supportive of diversity, with the authors surveying companies to find out what workss. That's why we read not simply that diversity training has no effect, but rather, a range of programs that do have an effect:

The most effective practices are those that establish organizational responsibility: affirmative action plans, diversity staff, and diversity task forces. Attempts to reduce social isolation among women and African Americans through networking and mentoring programs are less promising. Least effective are programs for taming managerial bias through education and feedback. 
Fair enough. But that's certainly not the persepective Clark would have us believe the authors represent.

9. More harm than good

Once again it is not clear whether Clark is talking about diversity in general or diversity training in particular (he appears to conflate the two throughout the article).

I think we can take it as a given that diversity programs, including training programs, can spark a backlash. There is ample empirical evidence of the backlash. The mere presence, for example, of women with an opinion seems to be very threatening to a certain subset of society. It is not surprising to see this in response to training programs as well. 

The anti-diversity backlash isn't unique to diversity training. Human resource writers have observed the backlash to all sorts of diversity programs, not just training. Even when the program is voluntary, it has triggered a backlash. It happens because the people who used to benefit from a monoculture no longer benefit. "The researchers reported that diversity efforts have led to increased numbers of women and minorities attaining managerial positions, but sometimes those efforts “can stimulate backlash among non-beneficiaries who may feel unfairly disadvantaged by these policies,” the report states."

It is not at all clear that this backlash constitutes "more harm than good". There was significant backlash against the freeing of the slaves in the mid 1800s in the United States, but this backlash not mean that the freeing of the slaves caused "more harm than good". Any time an unfairly privileged class of people loses that privilege, there will be a backlash.

10. No evaluation

It is not true that there has been no evaluation of diversity training programs, because then it would be impossible to state - as Clark has done consistently through this article - that diversity training has had no effect. Obviously some evaluation has taken place.

Clark cites another of Kalev's studies, this one a 2008 review of 830 companies. According to this article, the study found "the kind of diversity training exercises offered at most firms were followed by a 7.5 percent drop in the number of women in management. The number of black, female managers fell by 10 percent, and the number of black men in top positions fell by 12 percent."

But even this isn't the condemnation of diversity training Clark contends it is. The article continues:
The analysis did not find that all diversity training is useless. Rather, it showed that mandatory programs -- often undertaken mainly with an eye to avoiding liability in discrimination lawsuits -- were the problem. When diversity training is voluntary and undertaken to advance a company's business goals, it was associated with increased diversity in management.
So not only was there not no evaluation, the evaluation shows that in some cases diversity training let to positive outcomes.


I get that Clark is trying to be cute, layering the objections to diversity into a series of objections to diversity training. Had he given his writing a bit more effort and thought this intent may have shone through. But it did not, and I am not convinced that he cared.

Many of the articles offered by Clark against diversity training are arguments against the concept of diversity itself. And if you don't support diversity in the first place, you're not going to supporrt the idea of diversity training.

But the problem with diversity training isn't the fact that it is intended to promote diversity.  It can be argued (and I have done so in this post) that diversity itself is substantially valuable (and whether or not it promotes business productivity is irrelevant). You cannot have a fair and just society of any type without diversity, much less one that expects to work and thrive in a global economy.

And the failures of mandatory training are, well, failures of mandatory training. Ascribing the failure to the desire to promote diversity is inaccurate and unsupported by the evidence. Indeed, it feels like the purpose of this approach is to oppose diversity.

Clark is free to oppose diversity. Goodness knows, a substantial portion of his own compatriots do, to the point that they want to expel immigrants from the country (they probably have bad things to say about curry too). If he wants to align with the likes of Elizabeth Theresa May and Nigel Farage, he should just say so. This little dance around diversity training is a sham not worthy of the little effort it took to write.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Institutions and Openness

Setting Up the Discussion
Let's be precise about what was claimed by Michael Caulfield in his paper Putting Student-Produced OER at the Heart of the Institution:
People make things possible. Institutions make them last.
His italics. His point is specifically that unless something is institutionalized, it does not last. He makes his position explicitly clear:
I had worked my heart out for this thing, evangelized widely, written up the prototypes and the stubs, explained it to the college. But I hadn’t institutionalized it. And so it was bound to die the minute I left.
He is also pretty clear about what that means:
While we like to scoff at all the mucky-muck bureaucracy around training, budgets, policy and messaging, it’s precisely that stuff that prevents your dream initiative of today morphing into rotting infrastructure of tomorrow.

It’s because I respect the work that all of us do in the open — faculty, students, staff — and want to see that work plugged as deeply into the university as the textbook industry used to be. 
I take pains to reproduce exactly what he says because of his response to my criticism (and also Jim Groom's criticism).

My criticism is this:
You can't depend on institutions. And in a sense, you don't need them. Institutions aren't what make tests and exams happen year after year. Institutions aren't what guarantee there will be course outlines and reading lists. What makes this last - the only thing that makes this last - is culture.
Caufield says we have misunderstood what he meant by "institutionalize". What he means is:
To instutionalize is to set up policy and technical architecture that favors activities you want to promote.
I said, "Pretty sure I've not misunderstood. Where do you set up policy? Where does staff turnover happen? In institutions. To be open, it has to be supported by more than just an institution. They're fickle. As I said, it must be part of culture."

The point here is that to institutionalize is to set up policy and technical architecture inside an institution. There's no other place these things can really happen. And my response is, contra Caulfield, doing this does not ensure persistence. Indeed, quite the opposite: if your innovation depends on an institution to survive, it won't.


Caulfield responded to this exchange today with a longish paper called Institutionalized that deserves to be considered in full.

He first responds to my contention that culture, not institutions, preserve the good things we want to preserve:
Institutions are one of the mechanisms we use as a society to perpetuate, change, or disseminate culture. There are other means, but seeing culture as an alternative to institutions is a bit like seeing travelers as an alternative to cars. I understand the relationship of culture and institutions can get a bit chicken and egg.  But they aren’t alternatives to one another.
First, and technically, this is not a category error. Institutions and culture have the same ontological status: they are human constructs, they cause changes of state in each other, and they can both be found empirically to be necessary (or not) and sufficient (or not) to preserve openness. We can disagree about the role each plays, but not about the existence or causal efficacy of one or the other.

Second, and much more substantially, he offers an example of 'institutionalizing' a practice through  Hostile Architecture "that purposely limits certain uses; here the addition of a middle bar to the bench. People don’t lie down on the bench because the bench prevents it." The best authority I know on this is Dan Lockton, who I've followed for years on the subject of architectures of control.

Caulfield's point, and I take it as given, is that institutions perpetuate and control things. Sometimes they exercise negative control, as when they keep the homeless off park benches, keep black people from voting, or keep poor and coloured people off city beaches. Sometimes they exert a productive influence, such as voter turnout through registration, clean cities through the fixing of broken windows, and the like.

Where we disagree is when we say that the institution is necessary in order to produce and preserve these things. Caulfield offers an example and it's worth quoting in full:
You can say, well — you just need a culture of acceptance, or people just need to be less racist, or whatever. But that’s incorrect. When you put a sign on the bathroom that says “Men” you institutionalize one thing. When you take it off, you institutionalize another. And when you put up a sign that says “All-Gender Bathroom” you institutionalize a third thing. (And no, not having any sign on it is not “de-institutionalizing access”. You’re all smarter than that, right?)
Well - let's think about that. The vast majority of bathrooms do not have signs on the doors. I have two bathrooms in my own home and neither has a sign on the door. What happens? Do people pee on the floor? No - they find the bathroom and use that. In my office, if we removed the signs from the doors people would still use the bathrooms. Having a sign on the door is not necessary to promote the use of bathrooms in order to pee.

By contrast, we also have a room in our office dedicated to eating and drinking; it's called a lunch room. There is a sign on the door that indicates this. Now, observe, first, the sign is not sufficient to induce people to eat there; many people eat in their offices, or at local restaurants. Second, imagine we created two separate lunch rooms, one for men and one for women. Would people obey these signs? Probably not - the institutionalization of segregated lunch rooms would (in this culture) be laughed at.

Institutionalization by means of signs is neither necessary nor sufficient to preserve social behaviours. Culture does. Culture says we pee separately, and not in our offices, but eat together, or sometimes in our offices.

Sure you can build things, like low-level bridges, to attempt to enforce policy through objects. Sometimes these objects last longer than the institutions that created them.

Learning Technology

Part of Caulfield's argument revolves around the choices institutions make.
They impact everything. And again, the point of all those ranting blog posts I wrote when I was a younger person was that the LMS institutionalizes a pedagogy that we don’t really want.  And I think the point of those early rants was if you want real change you’re going to have to dismantle — or at least change — the LMS. The LMS chooses what counts. And that effects what gets done. It’s the CompStat of education.
Speaking of category errors, we see one here. An LMS doesn't choose what counts. It is a piece of software, and software does not choose - that is a function reserved for sentience. People choose what counts. Sometimes they choose it directly, and sometimes they choose it (sometimes inadvertently) through their choice of software.

And sometimes - as in the case of institutions - other people make the choice for you, and then enforce it (or, at least, promote it) through policy or technology. That's what Caulfield is reacting to. Witness:
If you want real change, styrofoam padding isn’t going to cut it. Eventually you have to remove the damn bars from the bench. That’s what institutional change is. You make it so people don’t have to be your level of superhero to get it done. 
Yes. If you want institutions to change, you have to create institutional change. QED. But do we need - or want - institutions to change in order to support open access, open source, or open educational resources? Or could we get the desired result if (to take the extreme position) the institutions simply went away?

Why would I ask this? Because, from where I sit, institutions are typically the bodies preventing things like open access (and often in the same ways, and sometimes for the same reasons, they prevent the homeless from sleeping on benches or black people from going to the beach). And to take the point even further, what I've observed over the last two decades or so is a substantial struggle between culture - which wants these these things to be free - and institutions - which are trying to prevent that.

Caulfield lists half a dozen or more ways the institution reinforces the textbook and the banking model of education, and yes, this is one of the harmful effects of some of the choices institutions have made for us. I agree with him that these pose a "structural barrier to open pedagogy." But again we may ask whether we need an institution to support open pedagogy, or whether we would get the result we want were we simply to get the institution to cease and desist.

What's happening here, I think, is that Caulfield is imagining that the institution must be implicated in pedagogical choice, one way or another. So if we want something that is a non-banking model of pedagogy, the only way to get that is to change the institution:
We have made it simple to send hundreds of millions of dollars to textbook companies and difficult to use student dollars to build curriculum in-house for students. 
Doesn't it seem from this that he is saying these are the only real options we have?

Look at how he expresses the way culture is changed:
Or imagine another world where there was just a “college store” instead of a bookstore, and where professors had to coordinate directly with publishers to get their books shipped.... What would happen? Suddenly “culture” would change, wouldn’t it? People would walk around and say, wow, you have such a culture of OER on this campus, the same way people walked around the park benches and noticed there was no culture of visible homelessness.
Culture would change, he says. On. this. campus. Because there's no imagining in Caulfield's scenario that the change could happen outside the institution, or without the institution.

Pirate Libertarianism

The alternative to institutionalism is not libertarianism, Caulfield's argument to the contrary notwithstranding. Institutions can easily be used support libertarian (and neo-liberal) structures (indeed, that's what many of them are used for). And libertarianism is often used as an excuse (by institutions) to ignore culture.

Let's take the case of web archiving. It's a fact that institutions failed us with Geocities and with much more besides (we would also have lost all of UseNet, and we have lost countless websites). There are two ways to address this:
  1. Set up institutions to archive the web.
  2. Let anyone who wants to archive the web. 
Caulfield wants to do the first. Indeed, he suggests that doing the second amounts to nothing more than putting out fires or catching babies on an ad hoc basis. The problem of archiving should have been address structurally, institutionally:
A big part of it is the fact that a notion of archiving is not built into the model of the Web. If you want to fix that you’re going to have to get people on some committee meetings, a lot of them. You’re going to have to influence the W3C. You’re also going to have to engage with use of Terms of Service, and the regulation of orphaned content. You’re likely going to do that not as a private citizen, but through your institutions: colleges, policy boards, government.
Suppose we had done this. Would we even have the web? What made the web possible at all is that all this overhead wasn't built into it. All of this overhead costs money and resources. This sort of overhead was what made services like Compuserv and Prodigy so expensive.

This - indeed - is the sort of overhead that weighs down our educational system today. Committee meetings. Governing boards. Terms of service. Regulations. It is not clear - and the case has not been made - that this is necessary in a digital society to support learning.

But even more to the point: it is harmful.

If we look at the second option - "let anyone who wants to archive the web" - we can see that, in fact, this is what has largely happened. We have the people who saved Geocities, the people who saved UseNet, Brewster Kahle who created Internet Archive, Google images and Google cache, we have Napster that created MP3s of everything, even Sci-Hub to ensure that academic papers and publications do not (like so many books before them) simply disappear from sight.

The institutional response has been to do whatever it takes to stop this. The institutional response have been to create terms of service, to create regulations and laws, and to put people in jail for what they call piracy. Yes, even though the content would otherwise disappear. Indeed, the net effect of the institutional response has essentially been to enshrine it into law that only institutions can ensure open access. Not because we can't depend the public in general. But because we can.

It's ironic. On the CBC last night I listened to the announcer implore the public to look for a recording of the first ever episode of 'The World at Six', which was broadcast only 50 years ago. Less than my lifetime, and the recordings were lost. But maybe - just maybe - some individuals saved the recordings. It would have been illegal, of course. But maybe they did it anyways.

I don't trust institutions because they have proven time again that they can't be trusted. And I've found just as often than not when I go upstream that it's the institution lighting fires and throwing babies into the river.

Making it Work

I'm not saying people shouldn't work together. I'm not saying we should never build things. What I am saying is that we cannot count on institutions - organized economic and political units - to ensure the lasting value of these things is preserved.

And I am saying, therefore, that policies that make things like open access or non-banking education dependent on the good-will of institutions are misplaced and misconstrued. Because sooner or later someone is going to object (or forget, or simply retire), and the good work goes down the drain.

People do not value education not because we have educational institutions. Rather, we have educational institutions because people value education. And educational institutions are only one of many ways people support their own education, because what people value is the education, not the institution. The people inside educational institutions often miss that point.

We need policies that support education (or, more broadly construed, knowledge and learning). Because these are the things that are valued. And because people value education (and knowledge and learning), I believe they will value open access - indeed, that they have shown this to be the case - even though educational institutions do not.

Institutional change, in this context, is about saving the institution. But if the institutions don't change, culture will find another way. It always has.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Global Science Excellence in Canada

The Government of Canada, has been accepting proposals from the public on how to promote global science excellence. This is a subject of interest to me; I co-signed a submission from NRC researchers on the subject, and have been reading the other submissions.

I spent several hours today reading the suggestions and the supplementary material provided by many of the contributors. This post summarizes and comments on some of those other submissions.

Administration and Oversight

I think it is a common observatiuon that the previous government over-managed science, much to the detriment of science. Numerous contributions pointed to this:
  • Trevor Charles points to the dissonance between leadership and practitioners in the sciences. "From my perspective, the main reasons for the desperation are 1) stagnated support for basic research, 2) attempts to force innovation by ineffective and obstructive industry co-funding requirements, and 3) futile efforts to predict the areas in which breakthroughs will occur." 
  • The Agricultural Institute of Canada recommends "the reduction of the administrative burden preventing researchers from participating in high-impact research projects."
  • 66 NRC researchers suggest (PDF) "conditions that provide them the freedom to use their expertise and knowledge, including their awareness of the important issues in their scientific fields, related industries, and society at large."
  • The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PDF) writes "Overly restrictive communications policies imposed by the previous government muzzled government science" and "research staff of the National Research Council (NRC), have seen their inventiveness blunted through the imposition of poor project management and the loss of independence." 
  • To address the delay between funding application and funding, Darren Lawless suggests we "create a funding program that allows post-secondary institutions to apply for a fixed funding envelope over a specified time frame that could then be redistributed to fund eligible projects."

There is also a desire, though, to make sure that the scientific community doesn't run away with itself.  People want oversight, and they want to ensure we get a return on our substantial investment.
  • Tim Harford says "We cannot insist that scientists ought to be accountable only to themselves."

But is the role of government to micromanage research? Some contributors thought the government's perspective should be loftier, setting out a grand vision or national challenge.
  • Wayne Robert says we need to create a Canadian dream to stimulate our interest.  "These things drive innovation at home and create a sense of pride and unity." 
  • In a similar vein, "Something similar to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN."Researchers might point to TRIUMF, though, which already exists (see below).

By and large, though, I think that people found that most of the problems in oversight stemmed from the overseers, and they called for more stability and perspective, instead of going for the quick fix.
  • Ron Rogge advocates for constancy in government policy. "One can fathom the impact an ill-informed, inappropriately-motivated decision can make on the country’s standing in global science excellence.  A capacity that has taken tens of person-years to develop can be quickly lost, and to rebuild will take a much greater investment than the cost of retention." 
  • We have plenty of bright people right here in Canada; who, with the right support, will be the superstar scientists of tomorrow - if we start to remove the barriers to their success."

The last suggestion might be a bit over the top. But it does tap into the idea that the increased government oversight of recent years hasn't been helpful, and people are looking for alternatives.

Private Sector and Industry Input

People outside the sector (or who feel they are outside the sector) want a say.
  • Decisions about research funding should have more industry input, say some. For example, the CCentre for Excellence In Mining Innovation recommends "ensure broader participation by suitably qualified private sector representatives on grant application review boards" because "Right now, they’re dominated by academics."
  • The Council of Canadian Innovators argues "Colleges and universities need to continue to consult with Canada’s scale-up community when designing their programs to ensure that the needs of the current and evolving labour market are being me.
  • Polytechnics Canada (PDF) calls for "this consultation is to be inclusive and to allow Canada’s polytechnics and colleges to make their optimal contribution to increasing Canada’s innovation impact."
This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is always valuable to get more input - the contributions to this consultation are themselves evidence of that. On the other hand, if more input means more oversight, then it runs the risk of compounding an already difficult problem.

A lot of what follows below addresses the role of the private sector, colleges and polytechnics in scientific research in Canada.

Fund Fundamental Research

There was substantial support for funding fundamental research, with proponents making it clear that without fundamental research Canada will not have any innovation capacity at all. Indeed, there was concern that fundamental research was not sufficiently address in the consultation documentation, and that insufficient attention has been paid to funding mechanisms that support foundational research.
  • The Alliance des universités de recherche du Canada (ACCRU) argues "L'excellence en recherche n'a pas d'adresse...Investir dans les universités partout au pays" (research excellence is not addressed... invest in universities throughout the country.). 
  • The Agricultural Institute of Canada argues, "Basic (foundation/pure) research must also be considered as it is the fuel for innovation and commercial application.... The public sector must to play a leading role in providing an enabling environment for innovation and performing R&D in areas of public good, such as basic research, where the private sector has less incentive to invest."
  • The Canadian Association of Physicists advocates (PDF) for continuing the NSERC Discovery Funds. "This overall model of 'unfettered funds' works well for training flexible and innovative thinkers, and should continue, at a much higher funding rate," it argues. Also, "Allow for multiple and broad-based funding avenues to support diverse activities, especially when it comes to international collaboration. One size does not fit all." 
  • TRIUMF argues (PDF) for "big science" saying "Because they are built on a foundation of world-class research and education, large-scale research facilities have the expertise and capacity to grow and foster Canada’s innovation economy." It advocates "a 'needs driven' innovation program to fund research aligned with national objectives."
  • There are no rules to producing innovation save one: diversity enables prosperity. Frequently this is discussed in terms of the value of curiosity-driven research, where the history of innovation highlights a central role for serendipity in generating truly novel discoveries." 
  • Garth Huber (PDF), Canadian Institute of Nuclear Physics, and others, argue for reform in funding mechanisms to support basic research. " As the science develops and new opportunities and ideas arise, it is important to allow researchers to pursue a diverse program of excellence in fundamental science research." 
  • Roland Kuhn (PDF) re-examines NRC's mission and questions its focus on revenues. "The suggestion that DARPA’s economic impact be measured by its revenues would be considered ludicrous by any expert on R & D policy, anywhere in the world," he writes.
Foundational research is often contrasted with applied reasearch, which is discussed below, but it is important to keep some comments outlined by Roland Kuhn in mind here: "Basic research versus applied research is a false dichotomy. The range is much more graduated than that. The implication of what we were being told was that if you are not doing exactly what a client wants you to do at this moment in time then you are not doing applied research. As there are only two options, you must be doing basic, blue sky, research."

Innovation, Knowledge Translation and Applied Research

A number of contributors made the point that while Canada is strong on basic research, it is weak in innovation, that is, in bringing basic research to market. This has been a refrain for years. 
  • As le Conseil d'administration de l'Association francophone pour le savoir says, "Le Canada est fort en recherche, mais faible en innovation" (Canada is stong on research, but poor at innovation).
  • The Agricultural Institute of Canada argues,"the gap between Canada and the world’s top five innovation performers has widened. In the most recent World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness Report (2014-15) Canada ranks 23rd of 140 countries in capacity for innovation, significantly below levels in the United States (3rd).
  • L'Institut professionnel de la fonction publique du Canada argues "L’économie du Canada manque d’innovation" and suggests "les scientifiques du gouvernement fédéral pourront s’engager pleinement dans l’atteinte des nouvelles priorités du pays en matière d’innovation" (government scientistscould fully commit to meeting the priorities of becoming an innovation nation).  

The natural reaction has been to shift resources to support an innovation agenda. This reaction is echoed by a number of contributors.
  • The Agricultural Institute of Canada argues, "An effective innovation agenda must then set medium and long-term national R&D priority areas that promote business participation. An innovative private sector is critical to translate Canada’s high-quality knowledge production into marketable products that bring productivity gains and deliver commercial solutions to various industries."
  • there needs to be a cultural shift and a redirection of incentives to support innovation and commercialization activities." 

The principle here is that research needs to be 'translated' or 'transferred' into innovation or economic development, often in specific sectors, "so that we as Canadians can extract maximum benefit from the investments that we make in research."
  • So suggests the Centre for Excellence In Mining Innovation
  • And the Forest Products Association of Canada argues "greater federal support in research and development would help maximize engagement in the forest sector’s innovation agenda."
  • As notes (PDF), "The Massachusetts Life Sciences Centre (MLSC) operates to carry out its MLSI mission choosing investments with a range of priorities: (1) Funding translational research that converts discoveries from Massachusetts into marketable products and services; (2) Investing in promising new technologies; (3) Building connections; and (4) Ensuring alignment of skills with needs of life sciences industries." This approach should be 'Canadianized', he says.
  • The Agricultural Institute of Canada also says "Participatory research approaches bring valuable opportunities to engage science graduates in research projects and knowledge transfer (KT) activities on the ground."
  • The Council of Canadian Innovators  argues we should "develop policies that help our entrepreneurs commercialize ideas coming out of our universities."

Here's the problem: this is exactly what the government has done over the last decade, diverting hundreds of millions of dollars into knowledge translation, applied research, and commercialization. his has not addressed the fundamental issue: the private sector in Canada does not invest in research. And without this investment, no amount of government intervention can buy an innovation society.

Other people are looking for other solutions. Some, for example, think it's a match-making problem.
  • Steve Leach writes that we should "build a platform where new patents are examined and vetted by experts, where inventions are matched to industry needs, and where new opportunities for pure and applied research are aligned with commercial interests."
  • Similarly, IN-PART platform, "a global matchmaking network that connects university technologies with companies who are actively seeking to commercialize research." 
This has been attempted in the past. Maybe it can work with better technology, or maybe the problem isn't a matchmaking problem. Then there's this:
  • Sarah Diamond and Karl Vredenburg write, "Many organizations recognize the importance of innovation, but they don't know how to achieve it. The answer is design. With design thinking, Canada could innovate toward an inclusive society that brings the national values of equity and inclusive design to the international arena."

I'd love to think that this is the answer, but it once again rings of being the quick fix. I think that the answer lies elsewhere.

Transfering IP to Industry

Some people has been calling for more direct industry access to government-funded IP:
  • As noted by Tim Harford, "any IP generated by government scientists stays with the Crown." He recommends we "allow Canadian companies free access to any IP generated on behalf of Canadian citizens.
  • "Maximizing private sector experimenting or use of IP should be the goal," writes J.B., pointing to the barriers facing people wishing to commercialize publicly created IP. 
  • supported "prestigious chairs in industrialization", saying "We need an incentive for the most creative and adaptable researchers to work with industry for a period of time, where do would not be expected to publish, but to support the development of intellectual property owned by businesses." 

One of the major changes that took place at NRC not long after I joined was that a long-standing policy of encouraging researchers to create spin-offs and of rewarding them for their discoveries was discontinued. We've seen, as well, a nation-wide move on the part of universities to manage the commercialization (and retain the benefits) from researcher IP. Maybe this was a mistake.
  • argues "Universities and hospitals sometimes claim too much ownership of a discovery and as such eliminate incentives on academics, researchers and others to innovate and come up with new idea. Universities do not have the opportunities, nor the knowledge to take an idea from the lab and make it practical and execute."
  • The CIHR 'Proof of Principle program' should be reinstated, says J.P. Heale, Managing Director, UBC Industry Liaison Office. It "was a unique funding opportunity for Canadian researchers to de-risk and develop their research discoveries so that they could form spin-off companies, or license the intellectual property to established companies."
Much of Canada's innovation strategy has been centred around the idea of attracting large industry (with tax benefits, access to research, and use of government IP) in the hope that they would invest here and create a cluster of supplier industries. This hasn't happened.

By contrast, if we look at actual innovation clusters - at Silicon Valley, in Massachusetts, or even in Kitchener-Waterloo - we find that the economy develops as a result of a combination of basic research and spin-off startups. In other words, an innovation ecosystem.

Innovation Ecosystem

But what is an innovation ecosystem?
  • Steve Larter and Claude Laflamme suggest expanding our models of innovation. "We must not be too prescriptive about which models of innovation work, or key skill sets of individuals, the key is that the team overall, has the necessary ambition, energy, inspiration, focus, diversity and delivery skills combined with good internal communication."

A number of contributions described and recommended the development of aspects of an innovation ecosystem consisting of skills development, communications and networking, and access to resources. 
  • The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences says (PDF) "Investments in skill development, knowledge production and collaborative networks will help Canada build a rich and diverse innovation ecosystem."
  • Additionally, an anonymous contributor recommends improving science communication.  "Models of science communication exist.  Canada should build upon these models to become a leader in science communication."
  • Nathalie Mousseau argues for investment in scientific and research libraries. 
  • Sara Rubenfeld argues that public services employees should have better access to electronic resources that contain the most recent research and information available from around the world.
  • one recommendation identified in OBIO's report "How Canada Should be Engaging in a $9 Trillion Dollar Health Economy" ( industry CEOs indicated that for Canada to create an ecosystem for scientists to connect and compete with proposals for global participation."
  • Darren Lawless suggests "the creation of  'pop up' innovation zones within post-secondary institutions with the support of the government. These zones would build on the concept of successful maker spaces."

I think these are ideas that need to be taken more seriously. Most government investment in innovation over the last decade has consisted in funding to specific companies for for specific projects, and much less for services and facilities that support all companies or entrepreneurs. An innovation ecosystem, by contrast, resembles more an infrastructure investment.

Some people, meanwhile, think that we need to reshape society itself.

  • J.B. calls for decreased immigration levels. But a commenter says "for research scientist positions, I know that we cannot limit our search to Canadian university graduates." 
  • Sean Elliott calls on science to buy locally. "If more Canadian products are purchased, production cost per item will reduce, making our products more competitive globally (than they currently are)."
I think that most scientists would concur that nationalism and research are a poor mix.

Improve Research Efficiency

A number of respondents made recommendations that would contribute to an innovation infrastructure by increasing the efficiency of Canada's research investment. I think they have a point.

Consider openness, for example. Merely by employing more open source, by encouraging the use of open resources, and through open cooperation, we can eliminate many of the inefficiencies of Canada's innovation ecosystem.
  • CANARIE notes "research software developers spend time re-creating existing software components instead of expending their efforts on new and innovative functionality" and recommends that the Government should encourage researchers to move to more collaborative models of software development and reuse."
  • Similarly, une sorte de récompense (monétaire, ou sous forme d'accès à des formations, par exemple) pour avoir fourni du travail, du savoir et des nouvelles technologies à la Société en mettant leur(s) création(s) sous licence libre" (some sort of compensation for open source contributions to the ommunity) 
  • also argues that we should find a way to make Canadian science more open. "For example, publication could be in open-access (pay-to-publish rather than pay-to-read) publications, and underlying datasets could be posted online for deep-dives by other researchers.
  • There is also the potential to make research data more widely available. Research Data Canada argues "it must be easy to find, access, reuse, and the data must be accompanied by sufficient descriptive information and permissions to make it useful. In other words, the data should be Open."
There was also a call for centralization and national coordination.
  • The Total Innovation Management  (TIM) Foundation (PDF) recommends "adopting and nationalizing an Innovation Management Standard" that would define a common language and process for innovation management, be employed by government departments, and inform incentive programs.
  • The Agricultural Institute of Canada argues,"A stronger strategy to coordinate research priorities and strategies will reduce risk of duplication and produce efficiencies," and recommends "a  knowledge transfer and translation component should be a mandatory condition for conducting research with public funds." 
  • David Kennedy notes "We currently produce considerably more phD scientists annually than we can support," he writes. "Canada can build a more competitive scientific force by adjusting funding levels to train fewer scientists while at the same time employ(ing) more of them."
Again, though, attempts to create efficiencies through coordination (or standardization) create more problems than they solve. They increase the bulk of administrative overhead, create barriers to good research, cost time and money, and don't actually achieve coordination or standardization.

Public Sector-University-College-Industry Collaboration

There is traditionally a close link between colleges and industry which according to many writers  should be leveraged to support the research ecosystem.
  • Colleges should "have all the necessary tools to enable students to choose an entrepreneurial path right after they complete their studies," says

I think that the government should look into ways to more effectively (and more sufficiently) fund research at colleges and polytechnics. But I don't think that the price for this funding should be close collaboration with industry. This should be decided by the colleges themselves. If colleges decided that collaboration - through, say, co-op placements (see below) - are beneficial, they should be free to proceed. But they should not be wedged into programs of dubious benefit simply for the purpose of qualifying for research money.

There were also some calls for greater research-industry collaboration in other areas.
  • says "industry-academia-government cooperation is needed to develop and facilitate regional cluster"such as the Downsview Aerospace Innovation and Research (DAIR) consortium (

  • The Agricultural Institute of Canada says "existing federal government funding regulations prevent public sector agricultural scientists from collaborating with university scientists" and argues "the current regulatory framework governing the interactions between academia and federal research institutions should be revised." 
  • Jean-Pierre Monchalin writes, "NRC should also renew links with academia and be present internationally, while particularly researching association with scientific and technological leaders. He suggests NRC is the linkage between low-TRL research produced by universities and high-TRL research needed by industry, helping Canadian companies through 'the valley of death'.
  • TRIUMF notes (PDF) notes that while "a number of federally funded programs, such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s industrial partnership programs, support linkages between academia and industry in order to encourage innovation" these "are not directly accessible to large-scale research facilities."

Support Individual Innovation

While most research support goes to institutions, support could also be provided to individuals.
  • Takin K writes, "you have to have a rich family to establish a business in Canada; this is Inequality at work."
  • ow can innovations from 'citizen scientists' be included in funding and resource consideration?" Grant proposals should be allowed from all Canadians, he says.
  • For example, Le gouvernement pourrait par exemple offrir à chaque citoyen une période de deux ans pendant laquelle il/elle recevrait une allocation suffisante pour bien vivre, pour acheter du matériel, pour voyager, et qui serait consacrée à un projet innovant" (the government could for example offer to each citizen a two year period during which they would receive enough to live on, to purchase material, to travel, and could support an innovative project).O'Byrne also suggests that a universal minimum income would reduce the need to work and foster the development of innovation.
 I think these are good points. Why is funding only available through institutions? How could social policy help individuals get on their feet and do something interesting?

Moreoever, it is worth noting the barriers some individuals face within institutions:
  • points to "systemic barriers facing women regarding research and development grants." She recommends "emphasis on financial / business literacy for women, increased support for student travel to conferences, and increased connections between local politician & student unions/campus groups."
  • he makeup of Canada’s most prestigious and expensive talent selection program, the Canadian Excellence Research Chairs has only a single woman scientist but 24 men." 

I think that Canada could do more to open opportunities in science and innovation to more people and to support increased diversity. This has a little to do with affirmative action and a lot to do with ensuring that support, infrastructure, and access to services are there for everyone (and not just those who can afford them).

Research in Specific Areas

Many submissions recommended the government fund research in specific areas. I will list these for completeness, but I think personally that research ought to be funded if it is high quality reserach, as opposed to whether it supports the specific needs of the day.
All of these are perfectly worthy candidates - except maybe 'elementomes' - and we would do well to support them.

Research, Innovation and Education

It's no surprise that a science and innovation agenda would also get to education. Proposals fell into two categories. The first was support for co-op programs and internships of various types:
  • There is increased industry interest in workforce integrated learning approaches that provide post-secondary students with work experience while they are attending an educational institution" and recommends increased support.
  • J.B. writes "Colleges need to have shorter specialized certificate programs, in coordination with professional or industry sectors and provide internships or work experience"
  • Mitacs Inc. argues "an effective innovation strategy must therefore respond to these trends by supporting effective education and training of future innovators" and suggests "Canada will need to significantly increase the number of work-integrated learning opportunities available for students." It offers "a plan to foster talent for growth by scaling Mitacs’ programs to deliver 10,000 annual innovation internships across Canada by 2020.
  • Darren Lawless suggests a mechanism called 'sprintboard mentorship'. He proposes "funding and a mechanism that allows recent graduates to be engaged in solving industry or community problems while still having the ability to learn from an experienced professor over a short period of time – say six months to a year. Further, these graduates could mentor junior students who are working their way through their programs by providing insight and guidance"
  • The There are more opportunities at the college-level (than there typically are at the university level) to engage in “real-world” projects as part of co-op placements, field practicums and capstone projects."

I am not surprisingly supportive of practical experience in learning. Indeed, I think that the majority of a student's education should be actual experience in the community. But I have some caveats. First, and foremost, students aren't just cheap labour, nor are they valuable simply as a source of government funding. Second, many placements would be better served in support of community development and infrastructure support. It's not only about placements in industry.

The second category was focused on the need to teach people about something.
  • For example, We would like to encourage more teaching on the basics of mining and on mining’s contribution to making everything around us happen."
  • The Agricultural Institute of Canada recommends  "actors in the research value chain should undertake mandatory training in dissemination and public communication."
  • Include entrepreneurship in the mission statements and objectives of every post-secondary institution, and appoint an entrepreneurship champion or an entrepreneur-in-residence in every faculty," and "Integrate entrepreneurship into existing courses and add courses where gaps exist.
  • An anonymous contributor recommends we research the value of a STEM graduate to society and then use various advertising and teaching mechanisms to make this knowledge widely known. 
  • Ernesto Icogo calls for increased STEM teaching. "From young age to high-school, intensive STEM (in my case, mathematics) should be developed in the individual's mind, provide enough competition at national and international level,motivational reward and recognition."
  • that a grant is created to specifically address the lack of leadership training in academia.

While I appreciate the good intentions of those who contributed in this way, I need to remind them that education is not a propaganda engine. The purpose of to help students think for themselves and make their way in life, not to inculcate specific belief-set. These criticisms apply especially to those who would make entrepreneurship mandatory. There are many other ways to regard one's interactions with the rest of society, and it would be inappropriate to equate success with founding a business.

A Healthy Society and Ethics

I think it's interesting that almost nobody commented on these.
  • In their submission RESULTS Canada calls attention (PDF) to 'stunting' - that is, the reduced development and capacity created by poor childhood nutrition and recommends that the nation's innovative capacity could be increased through its elimination.
  • An anonymous contributor opposes the increasing use of animals in research and testing.

So much more could have been said in both areas, and more besides. We just received news this week of potential interference by the sugar industry in research regarding heart attacks. There has been no shortage of other ethical issues related to research, and there is no shortage of other social factors that impact our capacity to be a science and innovation society in general.

But that - by way of postscript, I guess - is grist for another day.