Study abroad in… Evangelical America

It’s winter. I’m hibernating and on a podcast listening rampage. The latest: A secular student chooses a different experience for cultural immersion. Kevin Rose, a journalism student, joins Liberty University to understand a new perspective and get material for a future book.

This is a such a delightful story about stepping outside your comfort zone and remaining open to people who live wildly different lives that you.

There’s such potential for cultural exchange within our own country. People could experience one another’s views and have face-to-face conversation. It’s definitely not as glamorous as eating gelato on the piazza during your study abroad semester, but the impact of that cultural exchange experience within the US could be so beneficial.

Listen to this Moth episode here.

Where has the conversation gone?

The Boston Globe reports on how technology creates employee isolation which in turn causes work place interaction to suffer. From remote work to employees plugging into earbuds to escape open office noise (and annoying coworkers), employees are less engaged with each other at work. Fewer workplace interactions between employers result in less creativity, less productivity, and less motivation.

The solution? Design interactive spaces and create opportunities for employees to engage. One solution offered up by Humanyze, was to create a mobile coffee cart to stimulate impromptu conversations between different teams. The coffee station was strategically places between departments who worked on projects together to improve spontaneous conversation.

“If you create an environment where random people bump into each other, then every so often pretty amazing things will happen, and even more frequently, good things will happen,” said Ben Waber, chief executive of Humanyze, which analyzes workplace interactions and has seen its business quadruple in the past year. “It’s building those levels of trust so the right stuff can happen more frequently.”

This article is so timely. It’s no wonder organizations are starting to think strategically about conversation and interaction design. The decline in workplace conversation has been happening for years now. Chances are, you’ve had one of these things happen already today:

You texted or did emails during a meeting

You put in headphones to avoid a conversation with someone

You put in headphones to avoid the noise in an open office space

You emailed someone who sits near you instead of talking to them

You continued an email chain that could have been solved by picking up the phone and discussing it

You didn’t pick up the phone when someone called

You avoid a difficult conversation, instead opting to email it

You pulled out your phone during a lunch with coworkers

All of the above are conversation avoidance behaviors.

Here’s the truth: I did all of those things in my last workplace. And I watched my coworkers do similar things. None of these actions are wrong. In fact, they’re all social norms in the workplace. In my last workplace I saw opportunities for conversations – spontaneous or productive – decline on the regular. Management was constantly on their phones during meetings (despite insisting on a “no laptops during meetings” policy), including during interviews with potential employees. One of the deans was notorious for being on his phone during meetings unless it was his turn to talk at people (yes, at, not with), when he’d use his brute manners to command absolute attention for his turn. The leader of our department consistently emailed difficult news rather than having conversations in person. Everyone was so busy. Few people had time to give you their full attention for a conversation. Many people outright avoided it. I took part in conversation avoidance too. Because here’s the thing: this was normal.

I’m fascinated by the evolving social norms around communication in the workplace. I’m nearly done reading Sherry Turkle’s, Reclaiming Conversation, which is a must-read book for anyone who’s noticed how our communication habits are changing. Her book dives into the decline in conversation between people in the workplace and the impact that it has on organizations. But she goes beyond just the effect on the workplace. She examines family relationships, dating, and friendships too. She puts a spotlight on the digital communication tools we use and how it changes our relationships, often not for the better. The themes that Turkle covers in her book – less conversation between people, obsession with our phones, less connection at work between colleagues – are all familiar themes. What makes this book so perspective-shifting is the in-depth examination of the impact digital communication is having in our everyday lives. She combines ethnographic observations and hundreds of interviews with students, professionals, and families, to share perspectives that should challenge our apathy towards the negative effects of digital technology.

The book has certainly challenged my apathy. It’s also helped me better understand the experiences I have with job seekers. The job search is a persuasive act, one that requires communication and conversational skills. The interview and negotiation process are conversations. Informational interviews are conversations with (ideally) interesting people. Yet so many job seekers struggle when I tell them they can’t negotiate over email. In coaching sessions I’ve seen blank faces when I have explained how to conduct informational interviews. So many job seekers lack confidence in themselves to know what to say or how to sound interesting. They seem uncomfortable with the idea of starting conversations with strangers. Students panic at phone interviews. Now, none of these things have ever been pleasant. Job seekers have never enjoyed them. But in my conversations with job seekers so much coaching revolves around how to have conversations with people. My networking workshops have evolved now to teach people how to have a conversation: how to enter them, what to say, how to be engaging, and how to exit. It seems so basic and yet every time I do it I get loads of positive feedback. The emphasis isn’t at all on career – it’s on conversation.

The future of work belongs to those with communication skills: the soft skills that allow you to work across teams, engage with people from different backgrounds, and adapt to new situations. These skills are hard to develop if your every day communication takes place on text and email. These skills require a comfort with conversation and the ability to process unstructured, verbal communication. In her book, Turkle shares anecdotes from young professionals who struggle to have conversations because they’re unscripted. They prefer to have time to think about the answer and write a correct response. Open-ended conversations are too risky.

My copy of her book is filled with dog-eared pages. I’m talking about it so much to friends that they’re eyes start glazing over, probably in the self-awareness that they’d like to pull out their phone and check their notifications. Or maybe it’s from boredom with the subject. Or maybe it’s because we’re all little uncomfortable when someone points out the truth about phone overuse and the decline of quality conversations. But none of us talk candidly about the impacts of it. I was at a dinner recently with friends who I hadn’t been together with in ages. The conversation was lacking. I couldn’t figure out if it was a product of not being in each others lives on the regular or the decline of conversational skills due to phones. And then two friends pulled out their phones to retreat, possibly because they were bored (indeed the conversation was boring). I wish I could assign Turkle’s book to all my friends so they were at least aware of how our conversations are interrupted, changed, and impacted by phones. Now when I’m socializing with friends this book is all I can think about.

If you’re new to Turkle’s work or interested in how the role of digital technology affects the workplace and family watch her talk below.

Accent party

Your oral apparatus – lips, tongue, jaw, throat – functions likes a machine, a precision tool to produce the sounds of your native tongue. To learn a different accent you have to understand how that machine works, take it apart and reassemble it. – PRI World, Why People are Still Trying to “Lose” their Accent

This delightful episode takes you on a linguistic ride into people’s attempt to rid themselves of their accent. From immigrants to Bostonians to Southerners, people trying to lose their accents share their motivations and challenges.

This episode has it all: tonal languages, tongue stretches, survival words, writing accents into novels, and questioning why its still acceptable to make fun of people with accents. Listen as a Russian woman moves from a Russian accent in English, to a British one, to an American one. It’s an amazing linguistic feat.

Light listening: Algorithmic surveillance

We’re so used to hearing about algorithms now that most people don’t spend much time thinking much about them. They operate in the background invisibly shaping our decisions as we go about our day. Most of us are quite clueless about how we’re manipulated by this technology.

This 22 minutes talk from techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci is the antidote to that ignorance. As the Dr Tufecki explains, these algorithms do more than make ads follow us around. They power Facebook’s dark ads that are used to manipulate voters and form the foundation for surveillance authoritarianism. Worse yet, it’s hard to know exactly how these algorithms operate and how we’re being affected.

Here’s a snippet from her talk:

Now, we started from someplace seemingly innocuous — online adds following us around — and we’ve landed someplace else. As a public and as citizens, we no longer know if we’re seeing the same information or what anybody else is seeing, and without a common basis of information, little by little, public debate is becoming impossible, and we’re just at the beginning stages of this. These algorithms can quite easily infer things like your people’s ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age and genders, just from Facebook likes. These algorithms can identify protesters even if their faces are partially concealed. These algorithms may be able to detect people’s sexual orientation just from their dating profile pictures.

Now, these are probabilistic guesses, so they’re not going to be 100 percent right, but I don’t see the powerful resisting the temptation to use these technologies just because there are some false positives, which will of course create a whole other layer of problems. Imagine what a state can do with the immense amount of data it has on its citizens. China is already using face detection technology to identify and arrest people. And here’s the tragedy: we’re building this infrastructure of surveillance authoritarianism merely to get people to click on ads. And this won’t be Orwell’s authoritarianism. This isn’t “1984.” Now, if authoritarianism is using overt fear to terrorize us, we’ll all be scared, but we’ll know it, we’ll hate it and we’ll resist it. But if the people in power are using these algorithms to quietly watch us, to judge us and to nudge us, to predict and identify the troublemakers and the rebels, to deploy persuasion architectures at scale and to manipulate individuals one by one using their personal, individual weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and if they’re doing it at scale through our private screens so that we don’t even know what our fellow citizens and neighbors are seeing, that authoritarianism will envelop us like a spider’s web and we may not even know we’re in it.

This 22 minutes will bring you up to speed on how algorithms are shaping our lives and what it means for the future.

 

 

 

While the talk above focuses a lot on Facebook, Dr Tufekci points out Amazon too is leading the way in algorithmic surveillance, especially with its release of Echo Look.

 

If this subject interests you check out the book, Weapons of Math Destruction. It’s a deeper dive into how algorithms shape our lives. And it’s a quick read.

The other side of the future of work: Amazon’s CamperForce

Field of Vision – CamperForce

File this one under I had no clue. There’s a subculture of our workforce that lives in RVs, getting hired seasonally by Amazon to work in their fulfillment centers. Amazon recruits seasonal workers at RV shows. For $12/hr, seasonal employees package Amazon goods to be shipped to the ever-growing masses.

This shouldn’t be considered future of work as it’s been happening for years. . If the jobpocolypse that so many experts predict comes to fruition we’ll see even more temporary hiring to fill in the low-level jobs that still need a human touch. It’s cheap. And there are plenty of people who need the work. As Barb notes this in the video, “We’re there to make the money. We’re not learning anything, we’re not there to start a career. They can count on us. Because they know we need the money.”

And on that note, again from Barb: “The American dream is changing.”

Indeed it is. And it’s wildly depressing after seeing this video.

The hidden fulfillment center footage was filmed by Jessica Bruder, who is the author of Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. Seems like a must-read anyone studying the future of work.

Professional development by podcast

I feel like we’ve made online learning really transactional.
— Maria Andersen, on the Teaching in Higher Education podcast

It’s a challenge to find (and fund) relevant professional development opportunities as a self-employed person launching a new company.

I network a lot to keep connected to communities and ideas. I try to build learning networks from those connections but I have gaps in my learning networks. Recently I discovered the Learning in Higher Education podcast by Bonnie Stachowiok. The podcast focuses mostly on improving digital pedagogy, a subject near and dear to my heart. I’ve binged so many episodes of this podcast while neglecting my weekly favorites like Reply All, Game Plan, and On the Media. (there’s just not enough time for all my favorite in a week).

As I’ve binged I’ve realized how valuable this podcast is for my own professional development. I’m binging not just because I love the subject but because the perspective is so useful as I build the future of career education. I’m taking notes and thinking about how I’ll integrate play into courses or use new edtech resources. On the episode, Learning is not a spectator sport, I yelled in support, banging on my steering wheel, when the guest Maria Andersen said

You don’t actually learn until you engage with it.

With the flood of mediocre online learning experiences out there this rang so true. My goal as an instructional designer is to get students to engage with the content (without discussion forums) so the concepts stick. And thanks to this podcast I’m learning ways to do just that.

The host’s teaching skills are what makes this podcast such a joy to listen to. Not only am I getting incredibly useful content, she presents it in a thought provoking manner, much like you’d expect your favorite professor to do.

And then there’s the curated resources alongside the podcasts. This podcast is a goldmine for anyone who wants to improve their teaching, coaching, or facilitation skills. As an entrepreneur and instructional designer, it’s opened up a new way of thinking about professional development and growth.

Bon Voyage

On top of leaving their country, which is surely one of the hardest decisions of their lives, each migrant must still make the difficult, usually treacherous journey to Europe where they are greeted by an entirely new set of problems. The process is almost cosmically, comically dark and arduous. That realization was what inspired Swiss animator Fabio Friedli to create his still all-too-timely tragicomedy “Bon Voyage.” Typically reserved for expressing good wishes to those about to go on a journey, Friedli twists the saying “bon voyage” into a hilariously cynical and ironic title for his film. – Vimeo Staff Pick “Bon Voyage”

I’ve been slow to post on podcasts lately so I’ll share this short film instead. Bon Voyage offers up a different, powerful perspective on how we understand the refugee journey. It’s so easy to skim past the endless stories on the migration and refugee crisis in our timelines. Storytelling like this, and other films, can hopefully cut through our collective fatigue.

 

How was this algorithm designed?

Algorithms are everywhere. They make decisions for us and most the time we don’t realize it. Remember the United story where the passenger was violently ripped out of his seat? The decision to remove that specific was the result of an algorithm.

As more algorithms shape our life we must ask questions like who’s designing these algorithms, what assumptions do these designers make, and what are the implications of those assumptions?

So I’m giving a huge shout out to the podcast 99% Design for their episode on how algorithms are designed.

The Age of the Algorithm

Featuring the author of Weapons of Math Destruction, the episode takes a look at the subjective data used for algorithms that determine recidivism rates and reject job applicants. The examples used and questioned raised in this episode should have us asking more questions about the people and companies designing the algorithms that run in the background of our online and offline lives.

“Algorithms … remain unaudited and unregulated, and it’s a problem when algorithms are basically black boxes. In many cases, they’re designed by private companies who sell them to other companies. The exact details of how they work are kept secret.”

Cutting through the edtech hype

My Stitcher app is crowded. Week after week I watch all the podcasts that could be slip by, unheard. I have too many favorites and not enough time for all of them. But one episode regularly makes the weekly cut: Leading Lines. Here’s how the podcast for edtech in highered describes themselves:

“We explore creative, intentional, and effective uses of technology to enhance student learning, uses that point the way to the future of educational technology in college and university settings. Through interviews with educators, researchers, technologists, and others, we hope to amplify ideas and voices that are (or should be!) shaping how we think about digital learning and digital pedagogy.”

The short version: they provide a much needed perspective on educational technology in higher education. The result is a podcast that dives deeper into how teaching and learning is evolving alongside new technology. It’s positively refreshing. I’ve learned about second-language learning with wikipedia, new technologies for that enhance engagement in the classroom, and designing MOOCs.

I’ve worked on both sides of the edtech sector: as a vendor and client. In 2010, I did business development for an international startup. I worked remotely for an international student recruiting platform which gave students all over the world direct access to universities. My days consisted of scouring websites for university contacts, pitching administrators on email, following up on leads, demoing the platform, and waiting. Lots and lots of waiting. I loved our product and was out to convince the world of higher education how we were going to solve their problems (or at least North and South America, my territory). The job was filled with equal parts rejection and learnings. I didn’t know the term edtech then; we positioned the company as a social tool as social media was all the new rage. Though the term wasn’t around, I embraced the edtech hype. I believed that technology could solve many issues in higher education (ignoring the fact I’d never actually worked in higher ed at that point). The startup eventually folded.

In 2014, when I started work in career services at Yale School of Management, I was on the other side of edtech as a potential client. I was on the receiving end of a lot of pitches in part because of the brand name. The thinking goes like this: if a company can claim Yale SOM as a client and post our public testimonial they can sway other schools to do the same. We did the same when I worked at a startup. I remember trying to close a Notre Dame deal to score a brand name to dangle in front of future clients. The strategy works. At Yale SOM my director always evaluated new tech starting with: Harvard/Booth/Wharton is using it, so we should take a look.

In the beginning I had much empathy for sales teams whose emails I regularly ignored. I was ridiculously busy. The emails and requests for time were competing with ambitious students and a department that loved emails and meetings with equal fervor. Occasionally an email would break through (the power of follow ups!) and I’d chat. But the empathy faded over time as I experienced the worst of edtech sales:

  • Vendors insisting that their dashboard would solve all my problems without actually listening to my problems
  • Vendors who insisted on following their script. Once a person launched into a lengthy explanation on the basic concepts of data collection, ignoring the fact we were an MBA career services office which collects and tracks data on every student for mandatory reporting purposes.
  • Vendors insisting on demos when the product had no fit in our department
  • Vendors pushing to move forward despite my statements that I made zero decisions and didn’t control the budget – I was merely an internal lobbyist and would advocate where possible.
  • Vendors casually ignoring my questions at conference booths until they saw Yale on my badge; then it was all ears and smiles. (I know it happens and I know how boring booth work is but the frequency in which it happened was so disappointing).
  • Vendors ignoring the platform fatigue issue in our department (at one point I had students using 6 platforms and even I was tired of platforms).
  • Vendors with no understanding of UX, a particularly large red flag considering we’re dealing with learning outcomes. If you don’t understand users, how can you support their learning outcomes? Grad Leaders is the worst offender in this case, despite their prominence in the market.

These are the worst offenders of course. To be fair, edtech sales is rough . Decision-making in higher education is opaque. You don’t know who makes the decisions and when. Sales cycles are notoriously long compared to the private sector. Rejection is almost a relief compared to the non-responses. I look back now at some of my sales emails and I cringe. I was definitely a shitty edtech sales person at times (thankfully I’ve improved).

Now I read most edtech coverage with a critical eye. I wonder: did they talk with users before creating their solution? Is their solution based on a real problem? How are users benefiting from this technology? So when I read the edtech news at EdSurge Highered and CB insights I like to balance it with the Leading Lines podcast. I’m also a fan of Hack Education Newsletter, a comprehensive yet critical take on edtech news (and policy).

My relationship with edtech is always evolving. I’ve flipped sides again, having launched a company in the edtech space and pitching universities. But having a critical perspective keeps me grounded as I build and pitch. Podcasts like Leading Lines remind me regularly to consider both the learner’s and administrator’s perspective when designing for education.