Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

It's making us stupid

A small frustration induced rant.

Have finally gotten back to some reading around embodied and distributed cognition. Currently that involves reading “Supersizing the mind” (Clark, 2011) that includes quotes such as

It matters that we recognize the very large extent to which individual human thought and reason are not activities that occur solely in the brain or even solely within the organismic skin-bag. This matters because it drives home the degree to which environmental engineering is also self-engineering. In building our physical and social worlds, we build (or rather, we massively reconfigure) our minds and our capacities of thought and reason

This morning’s experience with institutional environmental engineering that has resulted in the information systems intended to support learning and teaching has reinforced in me just how stupid our massively reconfigured minds are, and just how limiting that makes our capacities of thought and reason.

In short, my proposition is that organisational e-learning is so limited in quality because of the really bad environmental engineering.

Environmental engineering that is incapable of designing systems that actually enable and expand our capacities of thought and reason when it comes to learning and teaching through systems that reduce the cognitive load required by individuals. In fact, they seem only capable of designing systems that increase the cognitive load on individuals.

One example

The new process for changing a student’s result is email based and requires me (and everyone else involved in the line of people associated with a particular course offering) to remember who to send that email to next. Consequently, there are repeated emails reminding people who to send them to.

Then you have the problem that people have to get the right email address. For example, if you type in “David Jones” into an institutional email client, you won’t get my email address. Instead, you’ll get an old David Jones email address for some guy that worked at USQ ages ago and apparently doesn’t read his email any more. At least that’s my conclusion after a student’s supplementary assessment piece was sent to his email address and nothing was done about it for a couple of months.

But what’s really gotten my goat is that I’ve now found a Peoplesoft implementation that was worse than my prior institutions. Peoplesoft gives each term/semester a four digit code. As explained in an earlier paper the prior institution’s four digit code was calculated as CYYT where C = century, YY = year and T = T. So, semester 2, 2013 would be 2132.

The four digit code for semester 2, 2013 at my current institution is 2420.

I can’t figure that one out.

What’s worse is that every academic is now being required to remember/calculate this four digit code every time they fill out a change of result form. Increasing the cognitive load.

Apparently the inclusion of this code is for “ease of handling”.

What’s this got to do with learning and teaching?

If the institution can’t environmentally engineer this very simple administrative process so that it enhances our cognitive capacity, imagine what it’s doing with the much harder and more diverse tasks of actually learning and teaching?

My proposition is (and has been for some time) that the methods used to select and implement institutional e-learning systems is making the institution stupid.

I purposely haven’t used “design” in that phrase because I’m not sure that any university is currently “designs” the systems it implements. The tendency is instead to select a bunch of disaparate, off-the-shelf systems and do enough to cobble them together from an administrative perspective. The idea of considering how well that work from a student/teacher perspective is almost entirely forgotten.

The cost and expense of modifying these systems means that they are implemented vanilla, which means that they often don’t fit within the “zone of proximal development” of anyone within the institution.

Lots more here….</rant>

Rather than enhancing my course site, I’ve had to waste time figuring out what all this means, remembering who and what to send stuff too, and generally get frustrated that a poorly design system is getting in my way. Do you think that’s helped enhance learning and teaching?


Clark, A. (2011). Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension (p. 320). New York City: Oxford University Press, USA.


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Looking for a new "icebreaker" for #edc3100

1 Comment

  1. beerc

    I suspect the problem here is that you are seeing learning and teaching as the overarching purpose of universities. Its more like nuclear energy, except the barely controlled chain reaction happens with bureaucracy instead of atoms 🙂

    In all seriousness though, its the age old problem of the hand having to be re-engineered to match the hammer rather than the reverse. From an enterprise system’s perspective, its far easier to push change onto the user rather than change the enterprise system. And, to some extent, this makes sense. People can adapt whereas enterprise systems can’t. The trouble is that this only works up to a point where the system is no long fit for purpose, which is where we probably are right now.


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