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.  

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