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My keynote slides from IEEE Confluence 2021 - STEAM engines: on building and testing the machines in our students' minds

These are my slides for my keynote talk at the IEEE 11th International Conference on Cloud Computing, Data Science & Engineering (Confluence-2021), hosted by Amity University, India, 28th January 2021. Technically it was 27th January here when I started, but 28th January when I finished. I hate timezones.

The talk winds up being about how to be a (mainly online) teacher in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) - not how to teach, as such - but it gets to the point circuitously through discussing some aspects of the nature of technology using a subset of my coparticipation model, that sees technology as organizing stuff to do stuff, in which we are participants, either playing our roles correctly (hard technologies) or organizing stuff ourselves (soft technologies). In the technologies of learning there are many coparticipants, all playing roles, soft or hard or both. The designated teacher is only one of these, less important than the learner and potentially less important than other coparticipants like textbook authors, fellow students, or Wikipedia editors.

The talk dwelt on the technological nature of teaching itself, and on the technological nature of the results of teaching. In essence, teaching (as a distributed process) can be seen as building technologies in learners' minds, some hard (training), some soft (teaching). In STEM subjects there is a tendency to focus a lot more on building hard technologies than soft technologies, because there tends to be a lot of hard stuff to learn before you can do anything much (the same is actually true in softer disciplines but students tend to come equipped with a lot of the basic hard stuff - especially language, debating skills, etc - already). However, as much as it is in the liberal arts (the 'A' in STEAM), it is actually the soft technologies - what we do with those hard machines in our minds, the soft technologies we assemble with them - that actually matters, personally, in the workplace, and in our social lives. Also, it is normally a really bad idea to force people to learn a lot of hard stuff without them actually having a personal need or desire to do so. Avoiding this chicken and egg problem means letting go of the notion that teachers control everything, accepting the distributed nature of teaching, and designing ways of learning that give autonomy, that make learning (not just its products) visible, and that build in support processes to help students overcome obstacles. Basically, letting go and staying close, and designing a way of supporting learning that allows you and others to show that they care.

It was an odd session, a lecture with no direct interaction, which is almost the opposite of what I was suggesting should be done. However,  as I observed in the session, it is the assembly that matters, not the individual components, and I was not the one doing that assembly. Seen as a component of learning, attended without coercion or extrinsic goals, I think my little lecture might have been quite useful.


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