Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Two reasons to pause before joining the Quantified Self Movement

Americans, fascinated by and fearful of all that data analysis might do for corporations and governments, have been analyzing data about themselves in ever increasing numbers.  Although the term “quantified self” was coined as recently as 2008 by two editors at Wired magazine, the practice of collecting, sharing, and analyzing data about oneself in order to improve one’s life has been around for a long time.  One might even call it a quintessentially American practice: in his autobiography Benjamin Franklin describes his method for tracking 13 virtues and says "I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined, but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish” (qtd in Hill).  Franklin, like today’s quantified selfers, believed that having information about our habits would improve them.

One of the first recommendations given by those who coach others to lose weight, improve health, save money, or be more efficient is to track it.  If you want to lose weight, most nutritionists and dieticians would have you track what you eat and calculate the calories you take in (some support groups like weight watchers have you count “points” but the idea is the same).  Trainers encourage people to track their exercise habits and progress; financial advisors from Suze Orman to Dave Ramsey ask people to track their spending.  Advocates of time boxing strategies like the pomodoro technique encourage people to divide work time into shorter sessions that they then devote to specific tasks and then track the number sessions it takes to complete the task and the number of distractions of different types they experienced in each session.  This process is meant to help people notice and control their focus and to become better at estimating how long it will take them to complete a given task.

Certainly there are many situations in which a rich data set about oneself does help people change habits which lead to improved health or financial stability.  One striking example of a quantified selfer whose tracking practices led to substantial improvements in health and quality of life is Dan Hon, a type II diabetic who describes in detail his tracking practices which led him from an %HbA1c of 12.2% (dangerously high) to an %HbA1c of 7.7 after 3 months (significantly improved but still concerning) and an %HbA1c of 5.4% after six months (a non-diabetic measure).  Writing on his blog, Hon summraized his story this way:

In conclusion: My doctor gave me some bad news, I decided I didn’t believe him, I lost a tonne of weight and I feel awesome. Data saved my life.

There is no question that tracking exercise and blood glucose levels can help people with diabetes take some measure of control over the disease.  One can see how tracking might help improve aspects of their lives.  As Lumo back (creators of an activity tracking app) explains on their product website:

The technology involved in the Quantified Self movement empowers people with heightened self-awareness and supports us as we strive to be the best possible versions of ourselves. Collecting data about ourselves allows us to make informed decisions about our daily behavior.

This sounds so promising--and so civilized and rational. Who would want to understand themselves better? Who wouldn’t want to have information that would help them make better choices? But this quotation gives us two reasons to pause in our zeal before joining the quantified self movement: (1) Corporate interests in QS and (2) the cool cerebral approach that puts pragmatism first.

Corporate interests in QS
The economic interests in the previous quotation were sublte; one had to realize the web page titled “Demystifying the quantified self” is a company's website created to promote a qs tracking device. While we might grant that having a page explaining why the device they sell is necessary for this company, it is hard not to also recognize the way that is presented in a way that is deceptive.  In this next example, the corporate connection is part of the point being made by Mark Moschel on Technori, a platform with information for start up companies that provides articles and “guides” on a range of topics of potential interest to people who want to start a business.

As a self-quantifier, I see the potential to control my own health and to modify my behaviors to optimize the length and quality of my life. As an entrepreneur, I see a revolution of the healthcare industry. Soon, technology will be spotting trends and diagnosing problems far quicker and more accurately than doctors.

As data from people around the world are aggregated, explored, and decoded into bits of knowledge, imagine the discoveries that become possible, the mysteries of the human experience that can be solved. With hands at our sides and eyes open, our world becomes that much brighter.
Insights from people’s aggregated data sounds innocent enough -- and directed toward a greater good, but of course there are also insights to be gleaned about individuals (that is why all the quantified selfers start this after all).  The companies creating all of these tracking devices and apps then own your data and can do with it what they like.  As Michael Carney explained in his recent post on PandoDaily (a site devoted to news about start up companies),

As we document and share more of where we go, what we do, who we spend time with, what we eat, what we buy, how hard we exert ourselves, and so on, we create more data that companies can and will use to evaluate our worthiness – or lack thereof – for their products, services, and opportunities. For those of us who don’t measure up compared to the rest of the population, the outcome won’t be pretty.

Carney goes on to suggest ways our data might be used against us by insurance companies (higher rates) and employers, and to quote from the terms of agreement of many of the most popular QS devices, reading that might well cool your enthusiasm for all things QS.

Pragmatism over joy
Returning to the quotation for Lumo back, in which we “strive to be the best possible versions of ourselves” and “make informed decisions about our daily behavior,” I simply wish to point out that all that tracking seems to interfere with joi de vivre.  Indeed, in a Wired magazine article by Gary Wolf, one of the coiners of the term quantified self, talks about Getting Things done, David Allen’s system for increasing productivity by tracking the “stuff” as related to Taylorism:

Workers hated Taylorism, especially when it was implemented through brutal piece-rates and a general reduction of wages. But Taylor's emphasis on breaking down everything into small steps, and his prediction that a choreography of work could lead to previously unimaginable efficiency, formed the basis of a hundred years of managerial high hopes.

One of Taylor's most controversial proposals was that labor and analysis should be strictly divided. The boss plans, and the hired man executes. Workers who don't need to think ahead can go faster, while observant managers benefit from unfettered clarity. One way to understand Getting Things Done is to see it as Taylorism for knowledge workers, those poor — or privileged — souls who must handle both sides of this equation in the same consciousness. The boss is nowhere in sight, and yet the demands never cease. As ever-more complicated communication networks both extend our reach and hem us in, Allen's strict routines supply exact instructions on how to manage ourselves.

In a sense, when we read back the data we generate, we find it supplies instructions on how we ought to manage ourselves. Do we want to turn the management of ourselves over to these company that measures our data?  This part of the problem is reminiscent of the world described in radiohead’s “Fitter, happier, more productive”.

PSA, Visual rhetoric

My PSA for Coursera's Writing II: Rhetorical Composing.

Monday, February 18, 2013

priming the double take

An academic list I subscribe to had been talking about moocs one day and someone posted a comment suggesting that although someone might learn in a mooc they couldn't be educated in one.

At the time this struck me as either deeply cynical or horribly mistaken -- much like Gardner Cambell's colleague who said "It may be learning but its not academics." Cambell's Open Ed 12 keynote



helped me see the argument we were having as evidence of the double-bind of Higher Education: we want students to learn, but the need to assess and credential that learning (often) makes it harder for students to learn. And the kinds of learning we're most thrilled by often don't fit our rubrics or assessment tools (although I suppose we can always slap a gold star on it).

We find ourselves in countless double-binds in higher education. The glorious "doubletakes" that help us pop out of the double bind and up in Bateson's hierarcy of learning happen most easily in upper level classes (grad classes and upper division undergrad). But they can be hard to come by in first-year writing classes and especially hard in basic writing classes because it is there that instructors are frequently so committed to the class (the people, relationships, and goals of the class) that the conflict between creating opportunities for rich, personal learning seems most in conflict with the pressures of assessment and credentialling -- giving students what they need to 'prove' they belong in the institution.

All of that would seem depressing as hell--is depressing as hell. Except for the window Campbell gave us to his students' double takes. Because although his class was one of those awkward-to-teach hybrid upper level undergrad/grad classes, he and his students acheived a number of double takes despite the doublebind. And if it can be done in the context of the weird hybrid undergrad/grad class, it can be done in basic writing. In fact, I think it is vital that it be done there and perhaps one way to do it would be to talk and write about the doublebind of higher education and see if together we could pop.




Friday, February 8, 2013

immersion in networked digital cultures

Do we need to be immersed in networked digital cultures in order to be effective literacy teachers?

I think so. As a long time lurker on many channels (a number of professional lists, twitter, reader rather than writer of blogs) I've come to face the truth that it isn't enough to read and observe; you have to do it, too.

Alex Reid's recent post prompted me to take this up now.  He writes:

Clearly all faculty have internet access at least through their workplaces. But to what extent have we collectively embraced networked culture? Certainly not to the extent that we have embraced the modern culture that we continue to celebrate through our curriculum.
Why is this an issue? Let's say, for example, that I didn't really care for reading books. I would assign books for my courses because that was expected, but I didn't live a life where books were personally valued. How successful do you think I would be teaching print literacy? Teaching with digital networks requires a kind of literacy derived from a significant level of immersion. This is, I think, a real stumbling block for our profession in facing up to this challenge. 
I'd go further than Alex; teaching literacy now requires engagement in multiple kinds of literacies, but especially networked literacies.  You can't gain fluency in a literacy just by observing; you have to practice.

Monday, February 4, 2013

teaching doesn't scale, but learning might

Over the weekend I sent the post below to the tech rhet list; I'm posting it here to link to other blog conversations about this question and to hold a place while I think more about Steve's response about the nature of education.

Steve [Krause]  might be right,

And to me, it's another example of how teaching doesn't
> scale.

But it is also a pretty good example of the ways that learning can and does
scale.  The course is about elearning, not eteaching afterall.  Learning is
hard to come by, even in a small f2f classroom where we do the right things
like conference with each of our students individually.  I'm much less
interested in the question "how well is this course being taught?" than I
am in the question "how much learning is happening there?"   That is an
ill-framed question that sounds sadly like an opening to a tedious
discussion of assessment practices (not where I hope we go with this!).
 I'm surprised by the intense focus on what the instructors want us to get
out of the course.  With 40,000 students (one of the instructors tweeted
yesterday 16,000+ active on the site) there must be countless goals for
taking the course and things people want to get out of it.  My own goals
have little to do with the course content (although Kathy's blog as made me
think in new ways about Prensky and has opened my mind to the possibility
of learning in ways more aligned to what I would guess are the sanctioned
goals of the course).  My point is that the goal isn't to teach but to
learn, and the learning isn't only what the teacher wants it to be.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Mooc hang outs

Today was #edcmooc's first hang out and while the instructors tried to make it participatory, it was at best participatory in the way that a call in radio show is participatory. This sounds like more of a critique than I mean for it to be, because really I'm impressed by how well the instructors are running this truly massive course (of the 40,000+ registered students, apparently more than 16,000 have been active on the site). They class is well structured (each week has a theme, the themes connect, it is clear what one should do each week and the instructors have helpfully indicated what they would like everyone to do and what those who might like a little more could do. The hangout, like the class, was well thought out with each instructor talking for a little bit about an aspect of the class, summarizing some of the discussion (mostly on the forums but also on blogs about the mooc), and offering some synthesis or response. They also took questions via twitter and google+.

As I watched I kept thinking of Kelly Ritter's Who Owns School? and her argument that literacy learning is often more vibrant in online discussions that are not in class or course space but instead take place in digital spaces not sanctioned by school. I was watching the instructors (and liking them / feeling positively about them and empathetic as I imagined what an incredible challenge this must be) but I was also watching twitter, flipping over to scan blogs and check google+. It seemed the livelier / faster/ more significant (to me) conversation was happening in the back channel. Ritter's book has also made me think about how my goals in taking this class, although clearly recognized as one of the reasons many of the participants enrolled in the class, is not, nonetheless what the course is teaching (even if it is what many of the students are there to learn). That is, I want to know what it is like to be a student in a mooc. Further, I want to know what it is like to participate in a class solely through a tablet. While I can't imagine the instructors for this "E-Learning and Digital Cultures" class would object, I know my interest in those goals far exceeds my interest in the content assigned for week one. While I watched the videos and read the texts, I found myself skimming quickly so I could get back to twitter and reading the blogs which, for me, is where the course is really happening. But it is Kathy Fitch's blog that has brought me back to the course material even, or perhaps especially the Prensky essay which I hadn't reread (having taught it a few times over the past few years, I thought I 'knew' it). But her reflections, emerging from the 'believing game' which had been prompted by the really rather scathing critique of the terms chosen and dichotomies introduced that had emerged in many blogs (especially blogs written by professors and most notably, to me any way, in blogs written by com rhet faculty).

I am REALLY struggling with composing on my tablet. I can't figure out how to include links on this app (really pretty basic feature for a blog...) , I'm finding it physically uncomfortable to write and difficult to edit. I'm committed to this experiment, but it is hard!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Two Moocs

A few weeks ago I decided I wanted to start keeping a blog that I would write solely on a tablet or other mobile device so that I could practice composing this way and get a sense of what it would be like to write more than an quick email, text, or tweet on a tablet. Somehow I didn't get around to it.

When I signed up for #edcmooc I decided it was time; we were encouraged to blog the course and I had decided that not only did I want to take the course to see what a mooc is like, I wanted to access the course only through my tablet and phone so that I could get a sense of what that is like too. (I anticipate the hardest part of this will be completing the final project: creating a digital artifact). #edmooc started today and so far it is pretty good. It was very easy to read the announcements and guiding materials, watch the videos, red the articles, and contribute to the forums. The forums themselves are overwhelming. We are barely 24 hours into the curse and there are already hundreds and hundreds of posts on a single thread. What will it be like in a few days? I will surely return to this issue again, but for now I'm thinking the inevitable repetition in the forums is making it dystopic (to use a key term of the course).

I get quite a different feeling about the other mooc I'e begun recently: google's advanced super power search. (Maybe I added super, but you can't blame me because it fabulous. The course is structured on principles of problem-based learning. They give you a series of challenges and for each challenge they teach you a few skills (either through short video or text) and some example searches to consider. I have found the videos to be concise and well done, but It is the challenges that make all the difference to my learning. This class would be entirely independent except for the handouts. I attended one today with 11 other people (some also were Americans but one was in Great Britain, one was in Spain, and one was Eastern European (although I don't know where she was logging in from). although we started out little awkwardly and had a few tech glitches, it really went long before we were moving ahead to solve a multi step challenge together. Working with others on problem like that we fun, little frustrating at times but mostly an excellent experience. One of the things that made it work, I think, was that I didn't interact with hundreds of people, but 11, and for an hour rather than for the few seconds it takes to read. Discussion board post.

#edmooc is going to have a google hangout on Friday. I'll be interested to see if it works as well for a discussion as it did for solving a challenge.