Saturday 11 March 2017

Status, Trust and Emerging Technological Threats to Universities

Universities appear to have successfully neutralized the existential threat that appeared to be posed by technology. Early debates about technological personalisation and “Personal Learning Environments” envisaged new forms of education where flexible and personalised learning coordinated with new tools would replace traditional educational structures. It was argued that the constraints of classrooms, timetables, curricula and exams would be replaced with approaches to education which would fit learners rather than demanding that learners fit the constraints of institutions.

In history, new technologies are often initially commandeered to reinforce rather than transform existing institutional structures and practices. Printing, for example, was initially seized on by the Catholic Church as a means of mass-producing indulgences. It took 80 years for the impact of the technology to transform (and almost destroy) the institution.

Educational technology is in its “early Guttenberg” phase – it reinforces and amplifies the curriculum structures (the VLE/LMS), assessment practices (Plagiarism detection, Mutliple choice exams, and emerging automatic essay marking), produces giant classrooms (MOOCs), increases institutional authority and status (bibliometrics, QS rankings), and (as with the printing of indulgences) ramps-up a financialisation process where education is increasingly seen as an ‘industry’ with vast profits being made in many areas on the back of student debt. As must have appeared to the Catholic Church hierarchy in the 1460s, the institution seems to have technology fully under its control. So what could possibly go wrong?

Whilst educational technologists have been attempting to transform education for over 50 years, it appears to be not education but employment which is being turned-upside down by technology. Today almost anybody can be a taxi driver (Uber), a postman (Deliveroo) or a hotelier (AirBnB). Similar business models are colonising medicine (e.g. PushDoctor), whilst virtual currencies like BitCoin dispense with the institutional authority of a bank, and the underlying technology of BlockChain looks set to transform contract law, among many other things. What’s happening? What might it mean for education?

What is unfolding is an “internet of trust”. Uber and Bitcoin work because they are trusted technologies. Where trust would once have been invested in the badge of an institution (a bank, a local taxi firm) it is now invested in an algorithm. The traditional structures of education depend on trust and status: a degree from Oxford is not seen in the same way as a degree from Bolton. The stamp of the institution on the status of individuals is acquired by bureaucratic and cumbersome processes of assessment and “quality control”. It is precisely this institutional rigidity which Blockchain and Uber address by reconfiguring the constraints of an operation and transforming the way transactions are managed.

I've been working on this in projects on medical education in China, and organisational risk in hospitals, exploring new technological approaches to assessment and status. It's some of the most interesting and exciting work I've ever been involved in. Cybernetics is important: it clearly demonstrates the seriousness of the threat posed by technology to existing institutional life – and suggests what institutions might do about it.

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