Thursday 6 February 2014

Education as Society's Laboratory

We tend to think of education as a service of delivery to meet individual learning needs. Marketisation, quality regimes, the risk of failure, pathological management, the potential for mis-selling, and social division all follow directly from this. This is because no 'service' that sets itself up to meet the learning needs of individuals can do so without creating a rift between the wants and desires of the individuals involved and the deep needs of the social collective within which the whole operation sits. Ironically, it may be because of the impossibility of institutionalised education to address this fundamental rift that we have become so addicted to it: like a drug where somehow we've convinced ourselves that whatever deficiencies are met by taking a bit, taking a lot more will cure. Like an addiction, however, berating those in the education system and saying that we have an education 'glut' will not wean us off education: it is, as with the alcoholic berated for drinking, more likely to lead to us to become more addicted to education.

But if we accept that we have mass education on a historically unprecedented scale, there is nothing stopping us from rethinking the relationship between institutions of learning, learners and the society within which we all live. The move towards rethinking education and society is analogous to the move social media companies have had towards a business model that works for them: it has to do with balancing the individual as both a consumer of a service and as a worker for the organisation concerned. Why can't learners be both consumers of learning services and workers for their society? Indeed, this twin role is not new, the more traditional Universities long had this kind of model in operation. But technology allows us to think about updating it.

Consumers of social media services become information workers thanks to the sophistication of data analytics. This helps the social media business generate revenue by selling analytic services.

We tend not to think of learners as consumers of educational services becoming information workers in this way (unless they engage in practices like blogging or tweeting, which they might be encouraged to do!). The question is, with a University, who are they working for? The institution? Or their society? It is up to our politicians to decide this: and there is a very strong case to say that it ought to be the latter.

Classrooms - whether in school, college or University - are microcosms of society. They are places where the ways that concepts are transferred from one brain to another are explored in various ways (by 'transferring' I simply mean to draw attention to what appears to happen in education, rather than to make any statement about what might actually happen). We spend most of our time as teachers wondering how it is that we might transfer a concept (in a practical sense), but think much less about what that process of conceptual transfer tells us about the world we live in.

'Informing' is one of the things that goes on in education. And since we characterise our current age as (variously) an information age or a knowledge economy, gaining a deeper understanding of the process of informing is very important. To put it another way, understanding the process of informing in the context of live data about actual learning processes from all our classrooms would create the context for better models of our society than we have ever had before. Every socio-economic group is represented, every pedagogical technique, every topic under the Sun... but latent patterns lie within the data of individual learning - particularly if there is the capability to aggregate individual learning on a massive scale.

No society would rationally want to extend itself to vertiginous disparity between rich and poor if it had the means and the models to understand how to control it properly. To most reasonable people, the consequences of absurd disparity are horrible and destructive. The reason why we have this disparity is because we don't understand it, and we do not have the knowledge to be able to control it.
Could (should?) we turn our learners into the information workers of society? Would we have the means to understand better what happens between individual brains with individual hopes, fears and the capabilities to cope with those hopes and fears?

We go on about how to make people more creative, how education is rubbish, etc, etc. When we do this, we continue the pathology of seeing education as a service to the individual. We are education addicts. We should recognise this and start to try to harness individual learners as information workers for our society, whose ultimate effect - one might hope - will be better government and better democracy.

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