Saturday, 19 September 2020

Technology's Future in Education

Looking at the EdTech landscape right now, in the light on the Coronavirus pandemic, it seems that things have settled-down to an established set of tools, where "the future" is mapped-out by the as-yet-to-be-proven technologies of AI and big data. Certainly that is how the doom-sayer critiques of edtech appear to see it. But history often doesn't work out in the way that we imagine, and we've been certain about the way things will work out in the past, only to be surprised by what actually happens.

There are some early indicators among the current crop of technologies that things may change radically once more. The first indicator is the re-emergence of an old tussle between centralised systems like content management systems, and decentralised document distribution systems. 

Many institutions have been refreshing their Virtual Learning Environments, and perhaps the biggest surprise in this "refresh" is quite how little has changed in 20 years. The VLE is really a content management system that manages people, content and activities together. As a centralised management system, it provides students with very little that they can do for themselves: all the functionality is focused on the management of students and the allocation of resources. For this reason, the UK name "Virtual Learning Environment" is at least less misleading than the US "Learning Management System". But in truth, these systems are neither "learning environments" nor systems for "learning management". They are administration systems which help keep track of the transactions of learning. 

 But at the same time as institutions have been refreshing the VLE, they have also invested in Microsoft Teams for real-time virtual classrooms. Now, Microsoft have an interesting history in groupware, where they have experimented with CMS systems, and with document distribution systems. Their Microsoft Office Groove system from about 2007 allowed for the peer-to-peer sharing of documents both online and offline, although they abandoned this when they put their weight behind Sharepoint. 

But it seems that the document distribution model is back with Teams, and particularly with the Teams Class Notebook. The Teams Class Notebook is a document distribution system where the OneNote notebook is divided into sections, some of which are solely controlled by teachers, some of which are controlled by individual learners, and some which can be edited as shared documents in real-time (like GoogleDocs). Teachers can create resources and "push" them out to learners, so that learners then take ownership of the documents, can customise them and organise them to suit their own purposes. Teams uses its messaging infrastructure to drive the communication and coordination process between all the student notebooks so that the teacher can keep track of what everyone is doing.   

It's rather reminiscent of Liber and Olivier's Colloquia VLE from the late 90s, where documents and activities were distributed through emailed zipped IMS Content Packages. Teams does the same thing, but has replaced email with their technology, and the Content Packages with the OneNote file specification. 

However, there are some advantages that Colloquia had over the current Teams Class Notebook. Being completely peer-to-peer meant that students could create their own groups and classes and distribute resources independently of the teacher. In Teams, this wouldn't be easy to do as things stand (everyone would have to be a "teacher") - but it is something that I'm sure people will experiment with. And then there is the issue that Teams is tightly integrated into the institution's IT infrastructure, and that including people from outside the organisation presents a large number of barriers. 

My guess is that Teams Class Notebook will inspire people to think differently about technology once more - we don't need big Content Management Systems for Education; we need distribution mechanisms which can be coordinated by teachers and learners. That's important not just for education. The CMS model dominates almost all web platforms - Facebook is the classic example. But if Facebook worked as a document distribution model, it would be very different. 

The difference, I believe, may lie in the way that individuals taking control of their own resources can promote the making of personal meaning and connections between things. At the moment, our meaning-making processes are beholden to algorithms presenting new stuff to us all the time, often trying to sell us stuff. But if we could share documents by distributing them and accepting distributed documents from people we trust then making our own connections within our personal collections can deepen the way in which we process information and think about the world. 

I wouldn't be surprised to see some kind of convergence between new forms of edTech and new forms of Social Software in the coming years. Institutions of education are going to have to adapt to this stuff. If the making of personal connections and personal meaning becomes the focus rather than simply "swimming in information", then the central question will become "What do institutions do to help individuals make sense of their technical environment?" Is AI going to help there? I doubt it - at least not in the Golem-like way we currently conceive of it.  

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Beyond the USS Pension Fund Collapse

There is a certain air of relief in UK universities that they have students - albeit a much reduced intake from overseas. However, nobody is relaxed about the future. The UK higher education system is oscillating like Tacoma Bridge: it is experiencing violent shocks both internally and externally (this has been happening since before the pandemic), and it is reacting to each of these shocks in a way that reveals that both our institutional structures and our compass are broken. 

The latest shock is the unsurprising revelation that the USS pension scheme - already in trouble - is now in such trouble that anyone looking at it might reach the conclusion "is it worth it? do we quit and invest money elsewhere?" That's very dangerous for a pension scheme. It's difficult to know the larger-scale effects of this, but it is almost certain to make working in HE in the UK unattractive.

There is no question that the marketised universities have exploited labour - particularly of temporary/hourly-paid staff. The union response to this, compacted by the pension issue, may be come to be seen as a warning for what is about to come. Although I had very mixed feelings about the strikes, when we stop listening to each other (which was one of the factors that led to it), serious trouble is always around the corner.

In the  final analysis, the question to ask when things seem to be shaking themselves to bits, is What's it all about?, Why do send our kids to university? The conventional wisdom (if you can call it that) among many management teams has been "we're businesses - it's about making money". This attitude, promoted by government, is directly responsible for the extent to which things risk falling apart now. It will be seen to be a classic case of the dangers of having a poorly inspected ontology. More importantly, it will be seen to be a warning that no senior manager of Higher Education can afford not to understand the importance of a grasp of the deep reality of education (how many managers even understand what "ontology" means?). Unfortunately, both sides in the industrial action suffered the same problem. 

A grasp of the deep realities of education requires thought and reflection. It requires a university to think about what a university is. This task is exactly the same as finding (or refinding) one's compass. Having said this, the lack of reflection has resulted from deeply embedded political interference in universities which has pushed them towards a market model. It has also jeopardised the personal security that all of us hope for towards the later stages of life.

A deep reflection on the realities of education cannot now exclude technology. Technology, in many ways, occupies much of the same territory as education: communication, collaboration, coordination of intellectual activity, construction, etc. Like universities, its ontology is poorly understood, but tech firms are not universities. Because they really are businesses, they have been seduced by marketised universities as opportunities to make large sums of cash. But at its root, technology is simple and (to a large extent) free. What has been missing are the dispositions to engage with it creatively and intellectually. While the pandemic has brought much crashing down, this creative and intellectual engagement with technology has been transformed, and things will not be the same again. It is noticeable that much of that creative technological engagement has featured retired professors, who - thanks to their generous pensions - can afford to make valuable contributions.

In many ways - although it certainly doesn't feel like it - our present crisis is caused by an embarrassment of  riches.  Our problem is not only deciding which way to go when there are so many options, but in remembering why we are travelling. To make universities rich? No. To pass on sufficient wisdom, memory, foresight and capability to the next generation so that they can negotiate the future? That must be it, mustn't it? So the possible collapse of the pension fund doesn't just indicate an immediate (or impending) loss of cash. It indicates that our values were misplaced. 

Universities must be viable and effective. To do so, their members - students, teachers, managers, must feel secure and able to think creatively, believing what they do is meaningful and makes the most of their intellectual talents. Right now, nobody feels secure in universities - partly because we are all - of whatever political persuasion, influenced by the illusions of market capitalism. This risks causing a debilitating intellectual malaise which will exacerbate the crisis. That is most likely to manifest in more industrial action. 

This is the point where intellectual authority is required - so desperately lacking from the present government. Only "health and quiet breathing" can create the unity between a deep understanding of the social necessity for higher education, the nature of technology, and the viable institutional model which can nurture and sustain it.

Friday, 4 September 2020

More on the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association: What online learning was meant to be!

 We've just finished the 4th week of the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association conference... It feels like a marathon - but what an amazing set of talks! You can see them all here: Overall, over 60 people have attended from all over the world - which is a number of attendees not seen since ANPA was founded in Cambridge 41 years ago. 

The level of depth of engagement, the level of mutual listening to one another, the variety of the presentations, it's all been extraordinary. Everyone says how amazing the impact of the technology is on the discourse. This is what online learning should always have been! We missed it because the community making the noise in online learning were the online educators - and they were not the most important people. 

In universities, the important people have always been the intellectual experts and deep thinkers within their own disciplines. The best of them would always think beyond their disciplines and listen to everything - and we've got many of the best of them in ANPA. It's also worth saying that because of the marketisation of education, these people have been oppressed within the university. Talking about the foundations of physics, or the connection between biology and consciousness became harder and harder in a transaction-driven system that was focused on certifying students and making money. The problem is that  all that transactional stuff is bloody boring. 

Covid is producing many changes, not least in the fact that the elders are now on Zoom. But more importantly, the closure of the campus has exposed the transactional nature of university learning as deeply deficient. Intellectual depth and real interpersonal connection will be essential for the university's survival in the future. As I've argued previously (and about to publish in Postdigital Science and Education), the transaction-driven model of marketised education relied on the campus to soften the blow of the outcome-driven educational process. The campus was a kind of biological surrogate.

With the campus gone (and yes, another lockdown is likely, isn't it?), a new balance must be struck. 

John Torday's presentation to ANPA provides what I think is an explanatory framework for what is happening to us. Our epigenetic environment has been transformed by Covid-19. Now is the time to rethink the biological foundations of our learning theory - particularly in the light of technology. It is, fundamentally, to rethink Piaget's genetic epistemology and Papert's constructivism (which drew heavily on Piaget)

My presentation was connected to this. I talked about "ontological theatre" of cybernetics (and Pask's involvement in ANPA has been a revelation to me), and the connection to David Bohm's idea that theory was a "theatre of the mind", and to think about what happens when minds come together.

This was Bohm's vision of a scientific dialogue: a tuning-in together of many brains operating thought together. It was also Stafford Beer's idea of "many brains thinking as one brain". My talk took in fractals, anticipation, a doodling program which I wrote, Rachmaninov's Corelli Variations and John Cage. It was fun!

But there have been so many talks - all of which will now receive new audiences for years to come. Mike McCulloch's propulsion mechanism explained with "information loss" was perhaps the most astonishing, but there were so many others, including beautiful artistic images from John Hyatt and Lynnclaire Dennis, or Andrew Crompton designing dice, or David McGoveran's wonderful overview of ANPA history in the US, or striking mathematical work drawing on quaternions from Doug Matzke and Mike Manthey.

And there's another 2 weeks to go!