Lateral Thinking

Thinking by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

With all the concern about the pandemic this year, moving courses online and making plans for reopening, I'm afraid that what has been set aside is pedagogy. I did graduate work on a doctorate in pedagogy that I never completed, but it exposed me to a lot of ideas on how we might improve our teaching.

One of the things I learned about some decades ago is lateral thinking developed by Edward de Bono in the 1960s. Lateral thinking fosters unexpected solutions to problems. De Bono believed that we tend to go for the straightforward, and obvious solutions to problems. He encouraged seeking out more oblique, innovative answers.

Lateral thinking is sometimes called “horizontal thinking” as contrasted with vertical thinking. The latter might be defined as going for the first good solution that comes to mind and launch into the details.

Lateral thinking encourages a longer brainstorming session in order to enhance creativity and come up with the most innovative solutions.

There are several lateral thinking techniques: awareness, random stimulation, alternatives, and alteration.

For de Bono, we need to cultivate an awareness of how our minds process information. That is a skill that is very rarely part of any curriculum, and yet moving away from established patterns leads to greater innovation.

Random stimulation is something I have been employing during this pandemic year - and I suspect many readers of this have also - probably unconsciously - done it. Normally, we try to shut out all distractions in order to focus on a task. In lateral thinking, problem-solving improves with some "random" input which often includes information - taking a walk, talking with a colleague or stranger, listening to a podcast, journaling.

At the heart of de Bono's approach is to deliberately consider alternative solutions. That has been described is many ways, including "thinking out of the box." Doing this is not easy for many people. His term, "alteration," can mean using several techniques. You might reverse the relationship between parts of a problem. You might deliberately go in the opposite direction of what’s implied as the correct approach. Sometimes breaking a problem or obvious solution into smaller parts can lead to an alternate mindset about individual parts.

It didn't help the spread of de Bono's theories in academia that he was not a fan of extensive research. He had called research “artificial.” For example, he claimed that “nobody has been able to prove that literature, history or mathematics classes have prepared people for society” - though I think we all believe that they have helped prepare people.

Lateral thinking has its critics, but the basics are sound and I have always thought that incorporating them into classroom activities is a good thing. I have never "taught" de Bono to students, preferring to embed it in activities. 



Is Technology Destructive By Design?

Technology is good. Technology is bad. Both are true. 

The highest tech has transformed the world. It has changed our culture, made information accessible to many more people, altered businesses, education, and the economy.

I came across the book, Terms of Disservice: How Silicon Valley is Destructive by Design, by Dipayan Ghosh recently. Ghosh was a Facebook public policy adviser who went into government work with President Obama's White House.

The book's title is a play on those terms of service that products offer and are often not even read by users. Though you can view this book as being negative on the effects of technology, it actually offers ideas for using technology in positive ways, such as to create a more open and accessible world. That was actually part of the original plan (or dream) for the Internet. The extra level of service he sees as lacking is consumer and civilian protections.   

Ghosh is a computer scientist turned policymaker so much of the focus in the book is on industry leaders and policymakers. Technology has done a lot of good but it has also exacerbated social and political divisions. This year we are hearing again about how technology in the form of social media and cyberterrorism has influenced elections. Civilians has wittingly and unwittingly given private information to American companies which was wittingly and unwittingly passed on to terrorist groups and foreign governments.

We have heard this on an almost daily basis, and yet it seems that nothing is being done to stop it.

In an interview with the LA Review of Books, Ghosh was asked about what a broader “digital social contract” would look like. He answered, in part:

"If we can agree that this business model is premised on uninhibited data collection, the development of opaque algorithms (to enable content curation and ad targeting), and the maintenance of platform dominance (through practices that diminish market competition, including raising barriers to entry for potential rivals), then three basic components of possible intervention stand out. First, for data collection and processing, all the power currently lies within corporate entities. For now, Google can collect whatever information it desires. It can do whatever it wants with this data. It can share this information basically with whomever.

Europe’s GDPR has begun to implement some better industry norms. But to truly resolve these problems, we’ll need to transfer more power away from private firms...

We also need more transparency. Basic awareness of how this whole sector works should not be treated as some contrived trade secret. Individual consumers should have the right to understand how these businesses work, and shouldn’t just get opted in by default through an incomprehensible terms-of-service contract. We likewise need much better transparency on how platform algorithms and data-processing schemes themselves work.

And finally, we need to improve market competition. We need data-portability arrangements, interoperability agreements — and most importantly, a serious regulatory regime to contend realistically with monopolistic concentration."

One of the takeaways from this book is that these institutions are destructive by design. It reminds me of the late revelations about the American tobacco industry that they knew their products were addictive and caused health problems and designed the products to increase that addiction while they ignored and even covered up the health concerns. Can the same be said of technology products? 

Should Teachers and Students Be Looping?

Infinite loop


Here's an idea from

"Imagine you had to begin each school year with a brand new staff.

Every year, every professional and every support specialist working in your school had begun his or her first year there. Every principal, teacher, custodian and food service worker wouldn’t know the routines, the curriculum or the procedures you expected them to follow.

There would be no building upon last year’s successes. In addition, the personalities of individual staff members and their impact on the culture of the school would be unknown to everyone as they started the year.

As an administrator, you wouldn’t anticipate high productivity until staff members learned what was expected of them and how to work together to benefit the students. For most administrators, the idea of 100 percent staff turnover is an unpleasant one to consider. Successful schools (and districts) depend on continuity of staff, curricula and programs from one year to the next in order to continually improve.

Some educators are discovering that this continuity on which schools rely also can work in the classroom. Instead of starting each school year with a completely new group of students, some teachers are staying with their students for a second year at the next grade level, a practice that is known as 'looping'."

Having been in classrooms for 45 years in secondary schools and also college, my first reaction would be to consider personalities. What about the teachers or students who don't work well together? Do you force them to endure another year together? Parents already have a lot of say in those decisions. This would cause more input from them. I had a year when I moved with my students from grade 8 to grade 9. there were advantages and disadvantages. But it's an interesting approach to consider.

Might Your Fall 2020 Courses Be HyFlex?

The HyFlex model is one that is being considered by schools for this fall semester. In this model, teachers teach simultaneously to students in their classroom and other students connect synchronously to the class. It can be labeled in other ways - hybrid, flex, blended - but all of them provide options for students who can’t come to class for health or logistical reasons. For this fall semester, this can also allow for socially distant classrooms because students can rotate through classroom spaces on alternating days.

At my university, NJIT, one model is called converged learning and offers a third option for students to view a class recording asynchronously later. By reducing the number of in-classroom students, they plan to use large spaces to socially distance students in courses that require face-to-face teaching, such as labs and studio courses. For a science and technology university, using physical spaces is essential for many courses.

Some faculty feel it will be very difficult to engage students in multiple locations. HyFlex also pushes faculty back to the "sage on the stage" lecture format that we have been trying to move away from the past two decades in order to increase engagement. many faculty at all grade levels still do not feel comfortable with the online technology even after the emergency switch over to it this past spring.

As an instructional designer, I feel that you need to design a course as a fully online one and consider the in-person portion (if it does occur this fall) as the enhancement. Don't expect the in-person portion to carry more than half of the teaching and learning.

Some things are better done in the classroom. Lecture probably isn't one of those things. Teachers and designers need to consider the differences based on the course, the space, and the instructor. In a FLEXible course, group might be best in-person or easier with more time put online. You wouldn't want to waste any lab or studio time lecturing.

In "Active Learning in Hybrid and Physically Distanced Classrooms," Derek Bruff, director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, posted about using the technology. He suggests that you might forego classroom discussion and have students respond to questions using live polling and web conferencing platforms.

For any of the flex models to work, all the class materials, assignments, group work, and other activities need to be ina a learning-management system so that they can be accessed no matter where they are learning. Bruff thinks it's a misconception that flex courses require two versions of a course for the classroom and for online.

If you want to know more about HyFlex, look into Brian Beatty's open-source book, Hybrid-Flexible Course Design.  

Kevin Kelly wrote a guest post, "COVID-19 Planning for Fall 2020: A Closer Look at Hybrid-Flexible Course Design" with examples of how a HyFlex class session might work. 

Converged Learning

Multi-modal courses that combine online and on-ground (classroom-based, face-to-face) students have been around for more than a decade under a variety of names. Hybrid, hybrid-flexible, HyFlex, blended are all terms used for course designs that allow for some flexibility. 

Most campuses now offer online and on-ground sections of some courses. Some schools offer a hybrid course section that meets on both modes. At New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) their approach has been called "converged learning." Particularly in this time of closed campuses and pandemic response, the transition to fully remote learning has been uneven on many campuses. At NJIT and many other campuses K-20 they are both preparing to welcome students back to campus in the fall and also planning for the possibility of a limited return or remaining fully online.

The goal is to deliver high-quality education in an environment safe for all members of the community. Technology-enhanced learning definitely is part of any of the possible scenarios campuses will find themselves in for the fall 2020 semester and possibly in the years that follow.

I started working at NJIT in 2000 and the university already had almost two decades of experience before the online wave of the 21st century had fully formed. NJIT created the virtual classroom in the 1980s and moved like many other colleges through the correspondence model to instructional television to content on VHS, CDs and DVDs.In 2013, converged learning became their educational model in an attempt to break down the distinction between face-to-face and remote learning.

In true converged learning, students attend the same class at the same time either in person or virtually. It allows faculty to see, interact with, and work synchronously with all students "attending class." Ideally, students have the same educational experience regardless of their physical location. Unlike registering for a course labeled as online, on-ground or hybrid, students can make that choice for any class session.

NJIT did not abandon its more traditional online learning initiatives which can accommodate students at different times and distant locations. New Jersey has been hit very hard by the pandemic and though the situation has improved and we hope to see further improvement throughout the summer, the number of students physically classrooms this fall could be reduced. The converged learning model allows students (perhaps especially those with preexisting conditions or concerns about in-person attendance) to choose when to be in a classroom and when to attend class remotely.

There has long been concern about how the academic standards will be consistent in online versus on-ground versions of a course. Converged courses have course content and learning outcomes that are independent of delivery
mode. Registration is the same way whether they want to attend by coming to the classroom, logging into the class from their dorms or nearby apartments, or joining the class from another city, state or country. Admission, registration procedures, and costs are the same regardless of the location from which they attend the class. Those in the classroom
experience the delivery of the course content as they would in a traditional class — except they are joined via synchronous streaming by other students who are taking the course from a distance, anywhere in the world.

This approach does require additional resources - from video in the classroom to teaching assistants. For example, at NJIT offline digital learning include Computer Assisted Design technology in programs of the College of Architecture and Design, Adaptive Learning software in mathematics, chemistry, and other areas. The university has needed to move further than before into the computer scoring of essays and other written forms, the automated grading of exams, and the asynchronous class management in all classes. (NJIT had been using Moodle earlier as its LMS and has now moved to Canvas.) 

   download free pdf of book

This convergence of the physical campus and the virtual campus seems to be - particularly at this unusual time - to be a logical consequence of the technological transformation in higher education.

Hybrid-flexible course designs have been used successfully for more than a decade at many higher education institutions around the world with a wide variety of courses. Some schools call this “HyFlex,” The initial impetus for developing a Hybrid-Flexible approach is often a need to serve both online and on-ground students with a limited set of resources (time, faculty, space).

It is far better when the multi-modal delivery solution gives students the opportunity to choose which mode to participate in from session to session. Students then do create their own unique hybrid experience.

The free book noted here and materials online at NJIT and other campuses will give you a sense of how these flexible designs are evolving.

The change in pedagogy required of faculty in converged learning is a whole other topic to be explored and certainly builds upon what has been learned in the past decades of online learning and from the more recent use of MOOCs.