Saturday, 24 October 2020

Making Online Learning Dance in an International Social Operating System

At the end of the Global Scientific Dialogue course at the Far Eastern Federal University, most of the students I spoke to said that being online didn't really affect their learning - indeed, for some, it was preferable to face-to-face learning. What they liked about the course is basically the same as what students tend to like most about most courses - working with friends, rich conversation, and sharing their enthusiasms for things with others. We tried hard to create this environment of group-work and sharing when we first designed the course 3 years ago for face-to-face delivery. It is quite different online, but this aspect of it has been preserved - and it was very gratifying to hear the reception. The role of the technology in this cannot be overstated - and there is something powerful and new in Microsoft Teams... it feels like an International Social Operating System... but more on that in a second.

If we really believe that conversation is the essence of learning, then the standard practices of much of the face-to-face curriculum cannot remain. Of course not all subjects deliver large lectures with masses of content - music and architecture stand out for me as the best subjects in the university - but far too many still rely on this mode of operation. It suits the teachers, and certainly suits the bums-on-seats managerialists, but doesn't do any favours for the learners. 

The online switch is revealing this more strongly. Global Scientific Dialogue, perhaps rather like music, is focused around tools and developing skills with tools. The content flows through the conversations and activities we get people to engage in as they explore the tools. It is personalised - everyone has their own experience, brings their own experience, and everyone has to make their own connections in developing their ideas. The truth is that this can be organised relatively easily and cheaply if the will is there to do it. 

Among the various noises about online learning during the pandemic has been the repeated claim by so-called experts that online learning is more expensive, more resource intensive, than face-to-face learning. Well - it is if you try to reproduce what you've been doing face-to-face! But why on earth would you want to do that? 

Of course, teachers in institutions are bound by institutional constraints and expectations about learning. But these constraints and expectations have formed around a bad theory of education. If we re-inspect our theory, we will find that the whole thing is much much simpler than the "constructive alignment" ideology, the learning outcomes, the quality measures which all but destroy innovation and creativity, and the assessment regimes that destroy conversations in the name of "academic integrity". The costs of education arise from our belief that these constraints represent what education is (grounded in "evidence" - another fallacy).

I've been incredibly lucky in Russia because I have had the confidence and backing of a senior management team who have been prepared to suspend judgement on things that are very different. In the UK our institutional stiffness in universities is much more deeply ingrained - partly, I think, because the layers of management that enforce it are threatened by the fact that real innovation in education would obviate their roles. The last thing anyone in a position of power wants to hear is an educational approach which simplifies everything to self-organisation and conversation.

But that is it. Being made to work online will make it more and more apparent to an increasingly large number of teachers and learners across the world. We can use the technology to do education and science better and cheaper - it's what the pioneers of educational technology always said from the beginning. We just don't need the layers of management and bureaucracy any more - just something to facilitate it. 

Education, when it's done well, is a dance. I'm really happy to have danced online in Vladivostok with some very talented learners and teachers. From our crazy improvised "orchestra" at the beginning, to the revealing of wonderful and diverse creative talents of learners expressed through our final "carnival" of presentations at the end, and rich conversations with a variety of experts in all kinds of disciplines in our "experts day", Global Scientific Dialogue has been a success and a revelation. The students produced wonderful stuff - highlights include two students - one in Russia, one in China, simultaneously trying to make a Mobius strip and cut it in half to make a trefoil knot, or students sharing their experiences of social media, or wonderful creativity in producing video (which many hadn't done before) and art.  

The technology too has been a revelation: Microsoft Teams is different from any other kind of educational technology we have had - and it is global, having consumed both education and industry over the last 8 months. It is our new international social operating system.  It will be with us for some time. Much as I distrust large tech corporations (they're all crooks, aren't they?), this may be a very good thing to happen to education at this juncture. 

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