The following is an excerpt of an interview with Jared Stein, Vice President of Research and Education at Instructure, the makers of the Canvas LMS. Following a press release in June that announced a suite of digital products for the hybrid classroom, Sean Michael Morris of Hybrid Pedagogy caught up with Jared to get a little insight into the pedagogy behind Instructure’s new tools. The full interview was published here.
1. What inspired the idea of lossless learning?
The idea of “lossless learning” was inspired at first by a desire to think differently about some of the fundamental concepts we take for granted in education, like transmission and reception of information, in order to help teachers and technologists find new ways forward.
Like most ideas, we arrived at this metaphor from many different conversations and research threads serendipitously coming together over an extended period of time. I do remember Josh Coates and I talking about the potential of big data – truly big data from a cloud-native learning platform like Canvas. Canvas has a tremendous amount of data, more than we currently know what to do with. So how do you make that much learning data actionable in a way that is both reliable and meaningful? How do you know which data is important and which is not? Is it even the right data? I’d been reading and writing on blended learning for a while, and the lack of data in face-to-face was foremost on my mind. Josh related the challenge of lossiness in data storage, situations where the quality of information is lost — sometimes inadvertently, but sometimes to gain a benefit elsewhere, like in size or speed. This idea of educational lossiness — accidental or planned — lined up with the notion in blended education that you lose something when you move from teaching face-to-face to teaching online — and vice versa. And we were off.
The important thing about the idea of lossless learning is that it’s not just about some new tools or feature’s we’ve added to Canvas, it’s about how technology in general can help capture important information that would have been otherwise lost, and thereby lead to improvements in the quality of the learning experience. My hope is that by paying attention to education’s tendency toward lossiness, educators and technologists will find a fresh way to reflect on the information that is either captured and sacrificed in any learning experience in order to re-evaluate and iterate learning design for greater effectiveness and efficiency.
2. Instructure is primarily an LMS provider, right? So, why the turn toward in-class technology?
Over the past few years it seems education technology has been obsessed with the potential of learning analytics. I think that’s with good reason, but often conversations about learning analytics presume that online learning is the only game worth paying attention to, because that’s where the data is. While Canvas certainly recognizes the power of online learning — it’s hard to dispute the internet has been the transformative cultural phenomenon for education in the 21st century so far — we also know our teachers and students, and we know that most teaching still happens face-to-face. Why? Not because some teachers hate technology, but because face-to-face is special, and will continue to provide things that online can’t well into the future.
There’s another side to it, too: For example, I had been teaching exclusively online as an adjunct for about five years before I returned to face-to-face classroom to teach a blended course, and it was hard. I was a fish out of water, and I felt the same thing that most new online teachers feel: Teaching in this new environment meant I gained some capabilities, but I had to sacrifice others.
So we thought, we’ve given tools to online teachers that help them capture some of the sensory richness of face-to-face inside Canvas; wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could do something similar for face-to-face teachers? We should figure out a way to diminish the lossiness that happens in many face-to-face classrooms with some clever technology. But not just by capturing data (and not at all by passively monitoring students’ physiology) but by helping teachers get more of their class participating and interacting using simple tools that capture data to reflect those interactions.
3. You say in the press release for the new suite of products from Instructure that “We are excited to see the impact of this new functionality in thousands of classrooms around the world. Lossless learning and personalized, iterative instruction have been practically impossible in physical settings until now, as educators would have to spend hours trying to retroactively document the learning that takes place in their classrooms.” I’m not sure that every instructor would agree that personalized, iterative instruction has not been possible, or cannot be possible without technology. How would you respond to a skeptic?
There are always teachers who defy our predictions and make amazing things happen without special tools or resources, and we all can learn a lot from them. So, regardless of how we interpret “personalized, iterative” I think you’re right: not every teacher will agree, and not every teacher needs these particular tools. But many classroom situations make it difficult to engage all students in ways that are personalized and individualized and gather meaningful data on those interactions that promote iterative design. We’re taking a baby step toward creating new ways of doing this with Canvas Polls and MagicMarker. Polls is especially useful when your goal is to increase conceptual understanding; MagicMarker is especially useful when your goal is to dynamically assess student skill or ability in the present moment.
Having said that, I want to point out that there’s a subtext, too: “Personalized” instruction has been used almost as a synonym for “adaptive learning”, which requires lots of data to trigger automated intervention. In a sense, we’re trying to return that word “personalized” to the broader conversation about teaching and learning by suggesting the data-driven, automated approach is practically impossible face-to-face. Indeed, the automation required in many interpretations of “personalized” is antithetical to what face-to-face is best at delivering on: dynamic, human interaction.
Find out what Jared has to say about the intersection of critical pedagogy and instructional design, the goals of higher education, and more. Read the full interview here.