Reverse Hacking Education

Disruption, reinvention, and even hacking have become very common themes in the discourse of higher education lately. As I sit down to write this post on the theme of hacking (for the fourth week of #clmooc, a connected learning community/course), I am thinking about how buzzwords tend to carry truckloads of irony and how often those who jump on the bandwagons of buzzwords with the most excitement don’t realize (or care about) the complexity of their words’ meanings, origins, uses, and effects. As a teacher, I am fascinated by the educational potential of irony and paradox in buzzwords, grand narratives, and over-sized belief systems. So, I often ask students to unpack the irony/paradox of overly popular words and their collocations. The intersection of the word “hack” and “education” seems so rich that I want to write an essay on it myself.

Assignment X: “Pick a word or phrase that has become unusually popular in the field of education (or another broad subject/context of your interest), study its meanings, origins, uses, etc, and write an essay in between 1000 and 2000 words.”

Many Meanings and Ironies of “Hack”
The simplest meaning of “hack” is to “cut with rough or heavy blows.” So, when the words is used in the context of education, I can’t help being reminded of crazy people who have no appreciation for the complex, labor-intensive, humane nature of education (so they think it’s a good idea “dismantle” the whole thing for its own sake!). For example, when they start advocating “competency-based” model of education as if that model can be used for all students, I think about them as “kick[ing] wildly or roughly”—or even “cough[ing] persistently” about education (metaphorically, that is), like when you have one of those nasty dry coughs all night!

“Hack” is closely related to “hackney” and “hackneyed”—the first word meaning “a horse of a light breed” or “low-quality carriage used for renting out” and the second one meaning “overused, trite, or unoriginal.” In the less popular context of sports, “hack” means “to kick at an opponent’s shins” in Rugby football and “to take a poor, ineffective, or awkward swing at the ball” in tennis. More generally, a “hack” is a person who is “a professional at doing some sort of service, but does crappy work” (this one is from the Urban Dictionary). Within more specific professions of art, writing, or journalism, “hack” refers to “a person who exploits, for money, his or her creative ability or training in the production of dull, unimaginative, and trite work”; such hacks “deal with banal issues and sell mediocrity, and all they care for is commercial success.” So, “hack prose” is an established phrase which means “routine or commercial writing” that is designed to sell. In the eyes of serious artists who sacrifice convenience in favor of of quality and honesty, a hack is someone who “renounces or surrenders individual independence, integrity, or belief in return for money or other reward in the performance of a task that is normally thought of as involving strong personal and professional commitment.” That’s where the political hack comes in, with his glib talk, manipulated facts, and pretentious concerns about people and society. Perhaps related to the above meanings, “hack” can also mean “annoy or infuriate” someone.

Interestingly, “hack” also has some positive (or at least neutral) meanings. One of them is “to handle or cope with a situation or an assignment adequately or calmly” (as in “He just can’t hack his new job”). One can also “hack” in the sense of “pass one’s time idly or with no definite purpose.”

To turn to the world of computers, from which those who want to reinvent education every year or so get their inspiration, “hacking” means “gaining unauthorized access to data in a system,” or in a less common sense of the word, “to program quickly and roughly.” As a noun, the word also means “a piece of computer code providing a quick and inelegant solution to a particular problem.” One of the senses of the term “hacking” in the world of computing that dictionaries don’t seem to have picked up yet is “testing or exploring software or systems for potential or real vulnerabilities.” Thus, hackers can be either black hat hackers who have malicious intentions (such as those who make viruses, steal data, attack/destroy systems) or white hat hackers (like those who hack within legal boundaries and in professional and responsible ways). However, there is a lot of grey area—or rather grey hats—in between the two categories in the real world of hacking (leaving much room for discussion and debate). For instance, white hat hackers set the price of bugs they find in a potential client’s system by threatening to publish or sell them to their adversaries (without doing so explicitly)—basing the whole business on the trade of threat and, essentially, blackmailing.

In the field of education, there are not only the “white hat” hackers who do the real work of education, such as teachers, administrators, and service staff. Most of these people are constantly looking to improve education by rethinking, experimenting, updating, and exploring new options for teaching and otherwise running the system. There are also—and there seem to be a lot of them suddenly spawning like mushrooms in the rainy season—the “black hat” and pretend-white hat all all shades of color hat hackers who are not interested in teaching or otherwise dirtying their hands; they just sell their stuff by showing real or made up weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the system. In fact, there are also the equally offensive white hat hackers who are within the system but don’t mind undermining education as a social if they can fulfill their individual or short-sighted interests. Thus, there’s a lot of grey area here too.

Reverse Hacking
There is, certainly, much need for creatively, purposefully, intelligently hacking the established systems of education, in the sense of finding and fixing “bugs” in the system, updating or improving teaching/learning practices, making education more effective. But the ideas about hacking and disrupting are coming at us so often and in so crude and offensive forms that I find myself itching to hack the hacking culture. I call this “reverse hacking.” Of course, reverse hacking is not “resisting change”; it is creatively appropriating good ideas and disrupting bad ones when the lazy, selfish, or dishonest hacks start throwing the baby along with the bathwater.

Reverse hacking works wonders in many ways. First, when people are constantly trying to disrupt, challenge, and reinvent education for no good reasons, it makes sense to disrupt that disruption mania and help restore sanity and common sense. It helps to tell the hacks: “Okay, stop this nonsense. We’re actually doing well most of the times, and the whole house doesn’t need to be dismantled. It does have a leaky roof, and I know it’s a serious problem, but I know damned well how to fix it.”

Second, reverse hacking is very useful when we need to pause and reassess habituated activities, processes, and outlooks. For example, in my college writing courses, I give students an assignment called the “discussion essay” in which they are not allowed to take a position or offer and support a singular argument; instead, students have to research a topic/question to explore it in depth and breadth, then present and discuss/illustrate the ideas/arguments, perspectives, and issues/dimensions of the subject/discourse that they found from the (library and internet) research. In this rather challenging intellectual exercise, students “hack” the traditional argument (where too many of them start by taking a position and making an argument, going on to find supporting arguments/evidence to “prove” that argument (addressing “opposing” arguments, if at all, to undermine them!). By hacking the traditional argument, students avoid being what I call “walking filters” like political pundits on cable TV.

So, as a teacher, I “hack” particular pedagogical strategies or practices in order to improve them (far more often than to undermine, destroy, or replace them); even when it comes to very specific areas of teaching or disciplinary knowledge/specialty, I don’t foolishly offer a complete overhaul simply because I don’t think that many, many educators before and beside me are ignorant or lazy. Here is a good example of a specific teaching area where I “hack” in the sense of finding and fixing problems. When teaching writing to nonnative English-speaking students, many teachers tend to focus more on the challenges that these students face with their language proficiency than on the full context and objectives of academic writing. Because language errors are only “symptoms” of the students’ challenges with content knowledge, rhetorical skills, and disciplinary conventions of academic writing, I focus on those objectives and let students develop language skills more gradually (and I urge that my colleagues do the same). Just teaching with a new priority helps to solve a problem that seems very difficult to tackle.

Reverse hacking is also useful in generally maintaining a critical outlook when the academy is abuzz with “principles of good learning” and “best practices” and “oh, we’re so behind the ‘digital natives’ in our teaching.” The reality may be that we’re falling in love with too many superficial ideas. The same “good” principles of learning or the same “best” practices work very differently with different students in different contexts/cultures; not all students feel like “natives” in advance of our introducing every new technology, because they have a range of feelings/attitudes, experiences, past exposure, aptitudes, etc, etc, etc with technologies. Even with seemingly homogeneous groups, different students bring in different kinds of expectations, attitudes, experiences and values regarding what constitutes legitimate knowledge, what should be the goals and priorities of learning, and how those goals should be achieved.

Reverse hacking also serves teachers when they need to debunk theoretical dichotomies about formal versus informal learning, school versus other settings, student-directed versus teacher-directed methods, video-games versus books, library versus the internet, and so on. It helps to call the bluff on those who vilify “tradition” learning in favor of all modern technologies by showing, for instance, how they fail to acknowledge that students’ engagement is shaped by many factors such as the need to get a degree and find a job and not just whether he/she is “enjoying” learning or not.

Until I joined a Google Hangout with several teachers from the #clmooc community last week, the term “hacking” didn’t appeal very well to me when it comes to the context of education. But since last week, I’ve been thinking about it a little more positively, constructively, creatively, and playfully (last week’s theme was “gaming”) about hacking in education. The discussion helped me think through the idea of “reverse hacking” as a potentially effective way to use “hacking” creatively and as a means for drawing the much-needed attention to the fact that the term “hacking” is being coopted carelessly or dishonestly by outsiders and by insiders seeking easy shortcuts. So, I think that if we don’t learn how to creatively, meaningfully hack our own systems, we will not only be vulnerable to hackers with bad or stupid intentions, we will also miss opportunities for improving our professions.

When outside hacks begin to overpower our own smart, meaningful, and creative hacking of education, don’t you think that reverse hacking is a great tool at our disposal as educators?

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  1. I have written about this, too:

    I am also developing a pretty healthy disrespect for the whole disruptive innovation schtick, too. Appreciate the hard jiujitsu work on reverse hacking, but I think you are doomed eventually because the word is too jittery now to be pinned down. Hach has been reduced to placeholder status, I fear.

    • Terry, Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. I had a feeling that the phrase “reverse hacking” would be both vague and it carries the same kind of baggage of “hack.” Still I wanted to explore and share my thoughts. Will be responding to your post on the blog.

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