Rolin Moe

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Technology, Pedagogy & Content


Rolin Moe is an Assistant Professor and the Director of the Institute for Academic Innovation  at Seattle Pacific University. Rolin’s 15+ years of working with formal, informal and non-formal learning institutions have focused on empowering all members of the community to engage teaching and learning. In formal education settings, Rolin works across the environment to conceptualize, design, implement and assess learning environments and models.  Outside of formal education, Rolin celebrates the ‘gap’ between artifact design and learning assessment, at organizations such as the Museum of Modern Art, Thesys International and the nonpartisan Annenberg Learning Center at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.  For more information, please visit Rolin’s CV or portfolio.

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Take on One Hit Wonders

My scholarship looks at the shadows of words we use as neutral or benevolent in terms of educational technology:  MOOC, innovation, failure, content.  I am interested in what we are talking about when we put these words into conversations, policies and strategic plans.  Response to my work is often ambivalent, appreciative of the effort but not understanding why someone would spend time researching the word content (it’s stuff) or innovation (it’s new stuff or new ways of using old stuff).  As I work to better refine my elevator pitch of why I find such work important, I use the example of popular music one-hit wonders as metaphor for the problems inherent in EdTech language ubiquity.

Ever so often, the purveyors of popular music find a slow media cycle and use the space to celebrate one-hit wonders.  Rolling Stone did this in May 2011, VH1 did this in May of 2013, and Sirius XM did it this May.  The one-hit wonder is the McRib of the music industry…bring it out on occasion, celebrate it, but please do not take too much time to think about what’s underneath the sauce.  The songs that dot the semi-regular listicles share a commonality of ‘defining’ a space and time with a stratospheric success…Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Come on Eileen, Lou Bega’s Mambo Number 5, A-ha’s Take on Me

But A-ha is not a one-hit wonder.

If you follow popular music and one-hit wonders, this information is nothing new.  A-ha has dominated European music charts for more than 30 years, and they are to Norway what ABBA was to Sweden and what Blink 182* was to college campuses at the demise of Generation X.

The asterisk comes for Blink 182 because, technically, they are a one-hit wonder.  Despite being a early aughts mainstay on radio stations across the dial and seemingly inhabiting every angst-riddled movie from 1999 to 2006, All the Small Things is their only song to chart on the Billboard Top 40 (#6).  A-ha charted both Take on Me (#1) and The Sun Always Shines on TV (#20).

So, how do we define what entails a band or singer being a one-hit wonder?  It is tough to consider Blink 182 a one-hit wonder as any number of their songs could get stuck in your head and require severe measures to extract.  Yet technically, they are.  As are the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Weezer, Garth Brooks*…

Well, here we go again, because technically Garth Brooks is not a one-hit wonder.  Rather, Chris Gaines, the alter-ego of Garth Brooks, is a one-hit wonder for Lost in You (#5).  Garth Brooks has never charted on the Top 40.  Garth Brooks is a no-hit wonder.

Once again, what is a one-hit wonder?  We would assume a one-hit wonder to be a musical act which only charted one time on the US Billboard Top 40, and we use the US Billboard as the stick of measurement because, well, because it was the first stick to measure.  This is the dictionary measure of one-hit wonder

an individual or group with only one success, such as a hit song, bestselling book, etc.  

Straightforward.  But the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has a different belief on the one-hit wonder

For as far back as rock and roll can remember, there have been artists associated with only one song — and one song only.  It may have been their debut recording, or it may have come after an entire career’s worth of show business perseverance…If, as Andy Warhol once predicted, everyone famous will only be so for 15 minutes, then the ‘one-hit wonders’ represent rock and roll’s unique fulfillment of that prophesy.

We have two conflicting definitions here:  one based entirely on standardized instrumentation (placement on a specific measurement scale) and another appropriating the scale to focus more on the space where a cultural phenomenon meets the creative apotheosis of an artist.  In the spaces where the technical definition takes a Jimi Hendrix and puts his work in the same space as a Men Without Hats, there is a massaged understanding of the term to focus on flashes in the pan.  Toni Basil is Mickey. Iggy Pop is Iggy Pop.  Chumbawamba is Tubthumping. Lou Reed is Lou Reed. A-ha is Take on Me.

A-ha is A-ha.

In Alan Levine’s recent blog post Dog and Cat Look in Vain for Their Attribution, Levine discusses the deeper problems of misattribution as a “sea of dead ends.”  Taking this further, the people Levine identifies as seeking ideas and connections too often end up in a simulacrum, a space of copies where there is no original source to provide that foundational story.  The story is instead built on shifting sands, less based on a specific space and time and context and more on the overarching dominant themes of that day’s society.  Levine quotes Slate’s Rebecca Onion in a way prescient for both his articles and this

By failing to provide context, offering a repetitive and restricted view of what “history” is, and never linking to the many real historical resources available on the Web, these accounts strip history of the truly fun parts: curiosity, detective work, and discovery.

When A-ha is boiled down to a kitschy video incorporating an animation lens and live-action, anyone seeking more about that band with the smooth sound and catchy synth riff starts and stops with the one-hit wonder label.  They miss 2+ years of experimentation in the Take on Me song

They miss the rest of the album Hunting High & Low

They miss a band in the rarefied air of having put out a James Bond theme

They miss the 1994 Winter Olympics featured act

They miss the 2000+ A-ha continuing to push popular music while incorporating the technologies of the day

They miss a band which broke up due to health concerns, yet came back together in order to support a country’s national memorial after the 2011 terrorist attacks

Depending on your interest in music, world culture or popular events, A-ha goes from one hit wonder to gargantuan power in the entertainment sector.  That’s quite a jump from the Three Kids from Norway find Magic in a Bottle story.

This feels like a lot of bluster for people who do not care about A-ha, are not interested in syth-enabled music, who grew up post-1980s and for whom music videos are meaningless, or people for whom there is no time to consider an A-ha that does not fit a basic trope.  The Internet is there to find stuff about A-ha if you really want to.

If education is about helping people find things they will love but do not yet realize, we must find ways in which to shepherd these introductions and developments.  Access is not enough, and it is surely not enough when the language with which we label entities muddies narrative waters it seeks to clarify.  A-ha is not a one hit wonder by any metric.  That we continue to celebrate them as such says more about our assumptions than it does about what we mean when we say one hit wonder.


Krapp’s Last Failure CV

Despite the hubbub surrounding Princeton professor Johannes Haushofer’s CV of Failure, this is not the first example of someone compiling & later publicizing their failures.  Haushofer has been quick to recognize this as his popularity goes viral with international interviews and mammoth press coverage, properly citing where he found the idea

And while Melanie Stefan, at the time a postdoc at the California Institute of Technology and today a Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, encouraged postdocs and other job seekers to keep a ‘journal of failure,’ her celebration of failure as published in the journal Nature was also not the genesis of tracking a personal history of fail.

Rather, we can track the recording of one’s life failures back to a pioneer of Silicon Valley mindset and champion of failing better, Samuel Beckett, whose 1957 one-man play Krapp’s Last Tape is a masterclass of a man analyzing the failures he has fastidiously recorded throughout his lifetime.  In the work, the character Krapp listens to a recording he did 30 years prior, and in that recording he addresses a recording from 20 years earlier.  Not all of Krapp’s efforts have worked out as he anticipated, but regardless of life’s outcomes he aggregates the information for longitudinal analysis.

There are some slight differences in the remembered failures addressed by Professor Haushofer

Academic positions and fellowships I did not get

Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professorship
UC Berkeley Agricultural and Resource Economics Assistant Professorship
MIT Brain & Cognitive Sciences Assistant Professorship
This list is restricted to institutions where I had campus visits; the list of places where I had first-round interviews but wasn’t invited for a campus visit, and where I wasn’t invited to interview in the first place, is much longer and I will write it up when I get a chance. The list also shrouds the fact that I didn’t apply to most of the top economics departments (Harvard, MIT, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Chicago, Berkeley, LSE) because one of my advisors felt they could not write a strong letter for them.

versus those of Krapp (parenthesis denote stage directions)

Recording of 39 year old Krapp, listened to by 69 year old Krapp

Hard to believe I was ever that young whelp. The voice! Jesus! And the aspirations! (Brief laugh in which Krapp joins.) And the resolutions! (Brief laugh in which Krapp joins.) To drink less, in particular. (Brief laugh of Krapp alone.) Statistics. Seventeen hundred hours, out of the preceding eight thousand odd, consumed on licensed premises alone. More than 20%, say 40% of his waking life.

But the meta-failures at the end of both works tie the theme together. Haushofer’s newfound popularity is not because of his research record at Oxford, MIT, Harvard, Zurich and Princeton but rather his “darn CV of Failures.”  69 year old Krapp also realizes his life’s work is not necessarily the result he anticipated

69 year old Krapp

Went to sleep and fell off the pew. (Pause.) Sometimes wondered in the night if a last effort mightn’t–(Pause.) Ah finish yout booze now and get to your bed. Go on with this drivel in the morning. Or leave it at that. (Pause.) Leave it at that. (Pause.) Lie propped up in the dark–and wander. Be again in the dingle on a Christmas Eve, gathering holly, the red-berried. (Pause.) Be again on Croghan on a Sunday morning, in the haze, with the bitch, stop and listen to the bells. (Pause.) And so on. (Pause.) Be again, be again. (Pause.) All that old misery. (Pause.) Once wasn’t enough for you. (Pause.) Lie down across her.

Be again, be again.  One can hear in Krapp’s last tape a foreshadowing of future Beckett missives, specifically the famed quotation from Worstward Ho, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better,” as well as the less famous lines immediately following, “Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.”

The power of recording failures will become ubiquitous in business and education practices, or at least that is the belief of Bill Taylor, who at the Harvard Business Review encourages everyone to take up the mantle of Haushofer, and before him Stefan and Krapp.  “We may have entered a world in which nothing succeeds like failures,” says Taylor, a co-founder of Fast Company magazine and graduate of both Princeton and MIT.  This is already in practice at Stanford, where students in the Stanford Technologies Ventures Program are expected to craft a failure resume, an assignment which brings “looks of surprise…in students who are so used to showcasing their successes.”  It may seem Stanford students are best-suited to this challenge, but students at institutions such as Chicago State University bring to the University setting large amounts of socioeconomic grit from which to build their CVs, not to mention the added failures coming from Chicago State University.  As we develop more and more curriculum encouraging failure from our students, what will be the expectations on the non-Ivy students in pulling themselves up by their bootstraps in order to fail?

Is there an element of vulnerability in these practices?  Sure.  Is there some solidarity in seeing that other people don’t always get what they seek?  Of course.  But vulnerability, solidarity and failure are anything but synonymous concepts. The failure manifesto is not intended to promote shared vulnerability or communal solidarity, but rather a meritocratic ethos that your success is based on your hard work and it will pay off in the end.    One professor did not get a tenure track at Harvard but he did at Princeton.  One postdoc did not receive one fellowship but she did receive several others, including Harvard and the University of Tokyo.  One 69 year old man did not give up drinking or pull himself from the tedium of his work-life existence, but he continued to record yearly tapes of his exploits.

Writing a CV of good fortune rather than a CV of failure, as suggested by Sonia Sodha in The Guardian, obfuscates the intended self exaltation inherent in the failure scheme.  Our successes are greater when we compare them to moments where we were not as relatively successful.  When we compare our successes to our socioeconomic fortune, the postulate fails breaks down.  If personal hard work is not enough, that means there are elements at play beyond our control, meaning we must do harder work beyond our selves and into our communities and environments.  As of this writing, celebrating failure is considered a better use of our successful time.

Here I end this reel. Box–(pause)–three, spool–(pause)–five. (Pause). Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.


Defining (adj. or v.?) Innovation

Innovation happens when we rethink conventions and apply alternative learning or technology to old problems.

–   Shane Snow, How Soylent  & Oculus Could Fix the Prison System

Innovation is the output of an extremely entrepreneurial culture.

Wyatt Roy, Above All Human Innovation Conference

Why everyone embraces the idea of innovation but at the same time why no one on earth ever thought of asking such questions [of its history, politics, culture et al.] says a lot about our lack of reflexivity about ‘modernity.’

-Benoît Godin, Innovation Contested:  The Idea of Innovation over the Centuries

Innovation as a concept is highly wound with technological advancement, so it stands to reason that an understanding of innovation is prerequisite for a career in a technology-rich field.  Innovation is also a highly saturated buzzword, one whose meaning has been muddled to the point where empirical measurement of innovation has dropped at the same time use of the word has skyrocketed.  How does innovation as used today stack up to the 20th Century gold standard definition by economist Joseph Schumpeter where innovation consists of business/organizational steps beyond invention (defined by Schumpeter as a process of creativity unencumbered by economic forethought)?

innovation-bulb-sqaureDominant conversations about innovation today are focused on how to perpetuate it, incubate it, and celebrate it.  Questioning innovation is therefore antithetical to our culture’s esprit de corps, evidenced by Bill Gates’ Davos 2016 speech:  “People who say they don’t see the acceleration of innovation is a wilful blindness. We are innovating at a wonderful speed for the basic things we think everyone should get.”  The precipitous rise of executive-level positions for innovation (Chief Innovation Officer, Chief Innovation Technology Officer) lends credence to Gates’ thoughts, but I wonder how many CIOs and CITOs have thought about Schumpeter’s organizational considerations circa Golden Age of Innovation versus the 21st Century innovation within a knowledge based society.  The answer is likely fewer than those who know who Schumpeter is and why he is at all important to innovation.

Innovation is neither a failsafe nor a four-letter word.  It is an historically-rooted, culturally encoded and politically weighted term that popular society in 2016 has co-opted to stand for the things they exalt, with a subculture pointing to its use as evidence of solutionism run amok.

For the past three months (and for the next three), my research/scholarship efforts have been wholly tied to creating a space where innovation can receive the airing it deserves.  At OLC/Merlot’s Innovate 2016 Conference in New Orleans, I will be hosting an interactive installation for conference participants to engage with innovation beyond platitudes, condemnations and assumptions.  Like a museum exhibit, conference participants will be able to immerse themselves in a space designed to both celebrate and criticize innovation.  Designed to explore the dominant as well as a negotiated reading of the term, the purpose of the exhibition is to challenge assumptions and biases, whether those be celebratory or critical.  A mixture of artifacts, video and dueling audio tours will accompany the patron through the installation, culminating in a space for a debrief of reflection and conversation.  The onsite installation will be augmented by a digital version, offering unique affordances to the in-person but existing fully on its own.  For those who cannot attend Innovate in person, the digital will be available as part of the virtual session.  For those who can do both, the experience will have an added augment.

defining-innovation-transparentWhy an exhibit?  Too often, interaction at a conference is relegated to attending a session, listening to a presentation or keynote, asking a question, backchannel messages, and potential post-discussion.  The time to grapple with a thought, concept or theory is not only immediate but it is passing at furious speed.  The concept of an installation provides the participant more agency in the process, a chance to engage on their terms and at their pace.  The exhibit will be open during conference hours, and it will feed directly into social media as well as digital repositories.  What does innovation mean to you can be an important question for such a conference, but without any pretext or context it is a hollow statement, an opportunity for production only because production is expected but not engaged or encouraged.  Defining Innovation is an opportunity to provide a foundation for the various conversations that will manifest throughout the conference, as well as to be a place for conversations to exist that might be lost or over too quickly in the frenetic pace of academic conference dialogue.

Defining Innovation is an experiment in presenting scholarship at a conference, scholarship dedicated to creating a framework for the conference and its outcomes.  Such a venture is nothing new — the history of installations in informal and non-formal learning space is vibrant and growing.  The concept of doing an installation at a conference for framework and consideration purposes is potentially innovative in itself.  The hope is that within such a space with the provided foundation, participants are more able to consider, debate and interact on the emerging topics and themes.

Image constructed by Dominic Williamson (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).  Background image – Death of a Lightbulb (Fourth Photo in a Sequence of Four) by Harold Edgerton.  Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

#hourofteach (or, Will the Last Philanthrocapitalist Turn Out the Lights?)

Here is an odd thing about Washington. The education bill is hardly an arcane piece of legislation, like revisions in the capital-equipment-depreciation schedules or intercontinental-ballistic missile basing. Ninety per cent of the schoolchildren in America are going to take the tests it requires. And yet, when it comes down to the crucial point in the negotiations, the community of people who know and care about what’s going on with a bill like this is quite small — intimate, really. That’s because Washington’s master narrative — what gets talked about at parties and on television public-affairs shows — has to be kept simpler than any bill of this importance can ever be.

– Nicholas Lehman, Testing Limits (07/02/2001)

The United States Congress, in what has been advertised as a rare show of bipartisan lawmaking, has passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and it is all but assured President Obama will sign the law (UPDATE: President Obama signed the bill into law on 12/10).  From the general perspective this looks great — the United States Congress is known for its historic gridlock, so passing high-profile legislation with such ease is indicative of a good thing, right?

Assuming agreement equals better education is more about the relative difficulty of the United States Congress than it is about the positives of ESSA.  A closer look at the literature shows a recent history of bipartisan agreement on education, starting around the time of the No Child Left Behind legislation, the same legislation our 2015 bipartisan collective considers problematic and ineffectual.  NCLB, a much-derided hallmark of the George W Bush presidency, was at once time highly celebrated and seen as the apparatus for equity in educational outcomes for students across the nation.  The same platitudes for Every Student Succeeds were, 14 years ago, effused upon No Child Left Behind.  When did Eurasia become Eastasia? (more…)


Coda on The Content Paradox (or Why We Should Celebrate Open Access to Art)

Never again shall a single story be told as if it were the only one.

John Berger, Ways of Seeing (1972)

The end of my #opened15 presentation used an example about OER from the perspective of art museums to solidify my thesis.  For centuries a fear of losing the control of the image crippled the manner in which museums operated:  forgery, photography, transmissions, mechanical reproduction, telecommunications (for more on the history, I encourage you to watch Orson Welles’ excellent pseudo-documentary F is for Fake).  It took an incredible effort to shift the cultural memory of museums away from image protection to celebration of abundance and ubiquity, thanks in large part to some incredible writing and production from people such as Walter Benjamin and John Berger.  I challenged the audience to recognize the history of the groups we sometimes chastise as guilty of openwashing, to consider their histories and spaces, to approach advocacy by encouraging these groups to further stretch their definitions of open rather than demanding they adhere to ours.  That’s a hands-on approach rather than a scaled, global initiative — which was also a criticism of mine regarding open (i.e., moving away from local to global structure does not mean abandoning the local narratives that catalyzed Open).

My presentation, entitled The Sale of Open Content, was a critical look at the OER subculture and its attitudes toward other subcultures as well as mainstream cultures.  I argued that our focus on copyright had led us to be so caught up in licenses that we had failed to meet people where they were, our pragmatism toward our work coming off as zealotry toward the specific ways in which we use specific licenses.  I had the fortune of a prescient topic in this telling, as the Open Education 2015 conversation was happening largely around the benefit of open textbooks as free or low-cost alternatives and whether or not the pinpointed focus had obscured or forgotten the Open ethos.

That is a roundabout way of saying Open is too focused on licenses. (more…)


The Content Paradox

But one must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. But the ultimate potentiation of every passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision, although in one way or another the collision must become its downfall. This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.

Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments (1844, translated 1985) p. 37

By definition, a paradox is not a negative engagement, which is at the heart of my trouble with the escape offered by David Wiley as an addendum to his reusability paradox.  The reusability paradox states that the context of an OER content (at the time known as learning objects) positively correlates to its educational efficacy (the more/better the context the more/better the efficacy), but at the same time has an inverse correlation to scalability (the more/better the context the less/worse the reuse).  This makes the paradox an example of a circular definition or an endless loop, because trying to be All Things results in a mediocre middle where the artifact is neither educationally beneficial nor scalable, essentially producing something sterile.

I find something beautiful about the dissonance within the reusability paradox — at the least it reminds me (as both a scholar and a practitioner) of the humanity behind educational materials created for an open purpose.   (more…)

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