Tuesday 31 December 2019

Programming the Educational Platform: A turning point for educational technology

The sale of Instructure to a private equity firm, Thoma Bravo, has prompted various reactions within education (see for example https://eliterate.us/instructure-plans-to-expand-beyond-canvas-lms-into-machine-learning-and-ai/). Instructure's Canvas has established itself as the leading VLE, with many high-profile institutions opting for its clean interface, seamless video and mobile integration, and powerful opensource service-oriented architecture. It is ahead of the competition, correctly identifying the move towards data-oriented educational coordination and flexibility, and providing an impressive range of tools to manage this.

The indications that there has been some serious thought behind the platform include its GraphIQL query interface (see https://github.com/graphql/graphiql), and an API which sits beneath Canvas's own interface. The API is surprisingly easy to use: simply adjust almost any Canvas URL for pages, files or modules to include "/api/v1/" after the domain, and instead of the interface, you get a JSON file. The consistency of this is impressive, and putting data in (automatically creating content, for example) is as easy as getting data out.

Instructure, like many players in educational technology, see their future in data (Turnitin was also sold this year for £1.3 billion). Of course, like Turnitin, in providing a hosted platform, they have access potentially to enormous amounts of data. The big hope for the corporations is machine learning and predictive analytics. However, for all the hand-wringing going on, I think it would be wise to be slightly sceptical about what has been portrayed as a corporate data-grab of universities. After all, machine learning is in its infancy, and there is no evidence as to what might be learnt through analysing VLE data that would be useful for educational institutions. MOOC data, after all, was something of a disappointment.

Of course, people point to Facebook, Google and Amazon as corporations which exploit the data of their users. Logic would suggest that education would follow the same path. But the difference lies in the fact that Facebook, Google and Amazon are all trying to sell us things (which we usually don't want), or get us to vote for people (who may not be good for us).

Despite all the claims around the marketisation of education, education is fundamentally about relationships, not sales. So Instructure might be wrong. We should use their tools and watch the space patiently - but I doubt that we are looking at an educational equivalent of Blackrock (although I'm sure that is what Instructure envisage)

The approach of Canvas to rationally organising the technical infrastructure of institutional learning systems is a good one and much needed. Whatever challenges educational institutions face in the future, they are likely to need to adapt quickly to a fast changing environment and increasing complexities (more students, increasing diversity of learning needs, more flexibility in the curriculum, more work-based education, etc). Rigid technical infrastructure which limits control to manipulation of poor interfaces, hides data, and makes coordination difficult will impair the institution's ability to adapt. Instructure has addressed many of these problems. So, basically, the technology is very good - this is what institutions need right now (I'm sure other VLE providers will learn from this, but at the moment they seem to be behind).

This also spells an important change for those whose role is to coordinate learning technology. Data analysis and effective control (probably through programming interfaces) are going to become essential skills. It is through these skills that flexibility is maintained. As more and more content abounds on the internet freely, as video production tools are available to everyone (including students), as the creativity and variety of expression and production becomes more important for personal growth, the job shifts to managing the means of coordination, rather than the production of yet more content. The challenge is for each institution to take control of its own platform - and this will demand new skillsets.

This is a new stage of educational technology. Where MOOCs provided content, they thought little about coordination and relationships, and the essential role of institutions in managing this. In Coursera and Edx, the institution was merely a calling-card - exploited for its status. In creating a flexible technical framework for institutions, initiatives like Canvas approach educational problems as problems of institutional organisation. There is inevitably a trade-off between big corporations which provide the resources to refine these kinds of tools, and institutional needs which when correctly analysed can use them profitably.

The interesting thing about where we are is that both universities and technology corporations are organic entities which swallow-up their environments. In biological terms, they could be said to be endosymbiotic. Lynne Margulis's endosymbiosis theory described how competing entities like this (in her case it was cells and bacteria) eventually learn to cooperate. Is this what we're going to see in education? If it is, then I think we are at a turning point.

No comments: