Friday, 30 January 2009

Why people misunderstand evolution

I was just reading an article in Computer Magazine about evolution and how it is central to business and to the development of computer software and this is a perfect example of confusion progress with evolution. Evolution does not have a final cause - it is not directed towards progress. It is random and then there is selection where the fittest are carried forward to future generations and the less good fade away. This does not necessarily mean that progress has been made and in most cases where ideas and businesses are involved there is no random element.

There is an element of luck or serendipity which can be confused with random mutation but this is wrong, this luck is that the current discovery, software etc. fits with the current environment. This is the question of selection and nothing to do with the process of generating the new "product". Random generations of products and selection is incredibly wasteful and Darwinian evolution is a hopeless way of achieving a good product. Business and ideas follow a Lamarckian model where better solutions are acquired during their lifetime by modification to fit the environment. We do not have random ideas that are not determined by our experiences. We see patterns and rules that Darwinian evolution can never find. In this way we make our own luck.

The supreme irony is that Darwin's view rejects progress and final causes for random change and selection and this was why there were the strongest objections as this would deny the presence of perfection and the possibility of God. Now we are in more pragmatic times but if you are going to use the term evolution for change do not invoke Darwin.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Destructive Feedback


Once a long time ago in an institution far far away I had to develop an online MSc Programme. So I dutifully sorted out the funding with a national body and matched funding in the institution and the involvement of the institutions online learning development team. So far so good. We already had a regular face-to-face course so of I went to try and put this online. Now that was early in online education and so putting materials online was just converting your PowerPoint to html wasn't it?

What happened

So anyway I gave them my lessons webbed up with more exercises but still very similar to how I delivered the face-to-face course. Then comes the feedback from the learning technologist. Well students cannot learn from this. Ok fine so what do we need to do to get it to work? Well I need to see the lectures and we need sound, yes we need sound so record the lectures.

So now we had them recorded and the technologist came to see a lecture and saw there was lots of pointing and that they were very non-linear and he shook his head and said I do not see how we can put that online.

Back to drafting so we prepare a statistics course which is some material to read and then lots of exercises and we prepare a CD with flash animation to take them through linux. We go back for our next meeting with these materials and the recordings.

Technologist: Well I do not know what you are going to do with the recordings.
My thoughts: Then why the $@! did you ask us to do this.
Technologist: No I do not know how the students are going to learn from this, there is no advantage of making it online over print and multimedia.
My thoughts: Well then why can't we use print and multimedia - this is distance and resource based learning and you use what methods fit.

The main problem I had with this particular technologist was that while they were sure what bad materials looked like they had no idea what would make good materials and so every time we had a meeting we would give them something we had done and they would say it was not pedagogically sound without giving any positive input.

The conclusions

The entire project descended into shambles and recriminations with reports being sent up through the university management by the learning technology department that the project was a disaster and that I was responsible. The fact is that the learning technologists never gave the project any support. They said there was inadequate reporting after never providing the forms to report with. What was most catastrophic was that they never gave any positive input and never helped someone who was new to developing online learning. Their destructive no this will not work feedback destroyed the project.

If you are ever going to undertake a project like this make sure you have the support you need and that they really have the skills they profess to have. A project like this is a team game not a one person show, the academic can write all the materials but the learning technologist must be there constructively all the way with their input about how things can be done. They should not be afraid to say have you thought about using this. The question then is always about time and resources because there is always how you would like to to look and then there is what you have the time to do.

It is still new technology so they cannot be expected to have all the answers but you need a good and close relationship between all involved.