Moving from institutional pedagogy to connectivist learning

I’d like to suggest that the institutional and connectivist models could flow in to each other, perhaps as part of a larger online learning ecosystem.

I do think that there are times when a more institutional model make sense. I think a more regimented, instructor-led experience is appropriate when the desired learning outcome is something like a clear set of knowledge, or a specific discrete mastery.

This approach probably works best when the main body of knowledge is not contentious – for example, learning basic mathematics – or when the body of knowledge is totally alien to the learner, and they don’t know how to begin approaching it.

A connectivist criticism would say that an institutional approach runs the risk of taking the learning out of learning. As the instructor takes the role of curating and guiding, the learner is more subservient.

But I do think that institutional pedagogy does have an important part to play: It can provide a starter pack of critical tools needed to engage in a community of knowledge. It can have a kind of springboard effect, and from there it’s not always certain where the learning will end up.

Perhaps we can think of institutional pedagogy as a sort of agar plate – a careful, nurturing
environment where the fundamentals of life can be absorbed, and an organism built up to adolescence. Once it’s matured enough to fend to itself, it’s time to grow and struggle in the realm of connective learning.

To my mind, an interesting question is how we support learners arriving in a new area of knowledge. Some of them will have most of the skills required to orient themselves as independent, connective learners in this new space; others will have very few. Certainly there are underlying learning competencies, but there will also be skills that are specific to different areas of knowledge. How do we develop both of these?

In other words, how can we make every learning community truly accessible?

This video was produced as part of the August 2012 #MOOCMOOC. I’ve posted it here with a transcription for accessibility. With apologies for any liberties I’ve taken over the theories involved.

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Why I’m taking the MOOC MOOC and what I hope to achieve

Today is the start of a particularly exciting massive open online course. Distinct from other ‘mooc’s, this course focuses on consideration of the medium itself. So the course is a meta-mooc: a week-long exploration of open online learning. I think it’s going to be a great week.

I’m fascinated by online learning and accessible lifelong learning. Last year I worked for the East Kent NHS Trust in an online learning role, and it’s wonderful to see how this space has opened up in the last twelve months. I wasn’t aware of moocs or mooc theory at the time – it would probably have been a big help!


In taking this course, I’m hoping to:

1) Gain a deeper appreciation of the pedagogy at play in moocs.

2) Think about the design and platform creation issues involved in moocs.

3) Forge a network that will allow me to properly engage with the medium as it develops into the future.


The moocs  I’ve taken so far have been broadcast-focused: Coursera’s CS101 and Human-Computer Interaction were my first wo. One track of the HCI course centred round a creative project, but the experience was instructor-led and the learning was overwhelmingly imparted through lectures. I had a great time on this course, and I wrote a review of the Coursera Human-Computer Interaction Course on this blog to explore my reflections in more detail.

I recently took the Power Searching with Google course, but didn’t make use of the discussion features offered. Spanning the course of two weeks, the course imparted some neat nuggets of information – some helpful procedural knowledge that has improved how I use Google search. But I felt no particular compulsion to supplement this by engaging in discussion with others. The course felt geared towards imparting specific units of knowledge each week, obtained by walking through the videos and exercises. This meant that the discussion forum felt somewhat unnecessary, as the learning objectives had already been met. The path was mapped out, leaving no real space for emergent knowledge creation through discussion.

At present I’m taking Udacity’s CS101 course, and have a few more courses lined up for the rest of the year. So far I’ve found these online courses to be a great opportunity to pick up technical skills that I didn’t obtain from my humanities degree. But there’s a whole lot more that this medium can do. I’m ready to talk to people, to learn by creating content and networks.


What am I expecting from this week’s meta-mooc? I really enjoyed watching this mooc interview with George Siemens earlier today. He makes a good point about how graduates are cut off from a community of learning when they leave university – this definitely resonates with my experience (I graduated in 2010). I’m working to create new communities of intellectual discussion, learning and practice. Some of these are offline, others online. I hope that this course is an opportunity to become part of such a community and to learn about how such communities can be created.

The interview with George Siemens did a great job of articulating what I’m most excited about – the focus of learning in the network, and the emergent creation of knowledge. I’m really looking forward to the discourses and connections that this week will bring. Let’s see what happens! Why are you taking the meta mooc?

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Review of the Coursera Human Computer Interaction Course

I’ve now finished the Coursera Human Computer Interaction Course. As I await my final grade, I reflect on my experience, on the statistics on student numbers, and on how the platform can develop.

It’s been a wonderfully wide-ranging course, spanning the whole design process. Participants have learned needfinding and observation techniques, how to carry out rapid prototyping, principles for effective interface and visual design, and a repertoire of strategies for evaluating interfaces. The scope has been a real delight and Scott Klemmer’s lectures have been brilliant.

 

Today Scott Klemmer, in his concluding message to class participants, shared some statistics on how people have been engaging with the course:

  • 29,105 students watched video(s)
  • 6,853 submitted quiz(zes)
  • 2,470 completed an assignment
  • 791 completed all 5 assignments

(Assuming that anyone who submitted a quiz or assignment also watched videos:)
Of the number of people who watched video(s):

23.55% submitted one or more quizzes

8.48% submitted one or more assignments

2.72% completed all 5 assignments (and presumably all quizzes as well, as the final course grade for people doing assignments is also determined in part by their quiz score.)

 

The course offered two different levels of accomplishment – you could either watch the videos and do the weekly review quiz (short multiple choice exercises), or you could do this and work on a design project. The former was the ‘basic’ track; the latter was the ‘studio’ track. I chose the latter, as I wanted to learn as much as I could. We now know that 2.72% of those who watched one or more lectures took the time-intensive design assignments through to completion.

I admire the way that the course tried to accommodate for people who could only commit to following the lectures, whilst allowing those with the time and inclination to get stuck in to a full project.

 

The quizzes were quite easy and quick to complete. I would be interested to find out how many people watched and submitted all videos and quizzes – in other words, how many people followed the ‘basic’ track through to completion. Was the provision of this less time-hungry option a success? What was the attrition rate over the course of the class for people on the ‘basic’ track?

 

Whilst Scott’s videos were excellent, the assignments were the highlight of the course. The assignments allowed participants to put into practice what was discussed in the lectures and tested in the quizzes each week. They were very time consuming (I spent in the region of 15-20 hours a week on mine) but absolutely worthwhile. I liked the way that each of us worked on a project for the duration of the course, going through the entire design process and coming out with a completed prototype.

 

Online peer assessment was essential in making the assignments work – it would have been impractical to grade them in any other way, given the scale of the course (not to mention the fact that it was not paid for by participants). And being involved in peer assessment enhanced the learning experience. (The pedagogy section of the Coursera website outlines the literature on peer assessment.) As I noted in a comment on a blog on peer grading in online classes, it was highly educative to see other people’s assignments, as this has been such a creative course.

The assessment rubrics were mostly very clear, and they were improved a few weeks into the course when ‘in-between’ marks were introduced. This allowed markers to accommodate for people who were better than one standard, but who had not yet reached the next level of accomplishment. eg:

Before:
No performance – 0
Poor performance – 1
Basic performance – 2
Good performance – 3

After:
No performance – 0
Poor performance – 1
Basic performance – 3
Good performance – 5

There were many other tweaks to the platform over the course, as we all got to grips with this experiment.

 

This course was a first foray into mass online peer assessment. Whilst other online courses have used computer grading to deliver scalable assessment, this wasn’t suitable here. Computer science and mathematics lend themselves to more mechanistic grading processes. One can quite easily devise a method to test whether a given program processes input correctly. But assessing design requires a more holistic,  subjective and qualitative evaluation method. So the course drew upon the grading rubric used in Scott’s Stanford class and utilised peer evaulation. Scott confesses that “we had no idea how this would work online.”

The peer grading process was certainly not anarchic. Before being let loose on your peers, you had to evaluate some control pieces of work. You’d then see how close you were to Scott Klemmer’s own assessment of that work. Once you got good enough (I think you were deemed to be ready when you’d performed 3 good evaluations) you were set to grade 5 of your peers. This trial grading system felt quite effective.

By grading other people’s work before you went back to grade your own, you were encouraged to take a more humble view, and hopefully one that was more objective. But Scott did note that “there was a real variation in the effort, standards and interpretation or rubric.” I wonder if the quality of a user’s evaluations could be monitored by comparing them to the mean grade given to a given piece of work by other evaluators. In reflecting on the assessment process, Scott observed that we need to figure out how to give people richer qualitative feedback. I think that these issues could be addressed hand-in-hand with measures to improve the timings of the course (and reduce attrition and dropouts) and the discussion element of the course.

 

I do think that the weekly workload could be improved. For those doing the studio track, the workload was quite punishing – particularly for those with work and/or family commitments. I spent around 20-25 hours a week on the course.

In any given week in the HCI course, learners had to carry out peer assessment and work on their own assignment (in addition to viewing the lectures and doing the week’s quiz). This meant that assessment and assignment competed with each other for attention. And there was no real formal incentive to lavish attention on the peer assessment. In his concluding remarks, Scott Klemmer stated that in future there would be more time between assignments.

I would also want to see a way of rewarding good evaluators. Good feedback could be incentivised. Perhaps each participant could state which feedback they found most helpful after each round of assessment, and the person who provided it could receive a little extra credit.

I think the course experience could be improved if there were alternating weeks of creation and assessment. This could encourage deeper reflection – and could be used to drive reflective peer discussion. This would also target criticism that Coursera’s Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have not been sufficiently discursive, and that they are still more like one-way lectures. The creation, sharing and discussion of project work in this course has, of course, already undermined this criticism.

Scott was impressed by the way that the community drove much of the learning, with people sharing interesting interfaces, articles and other resources. (For example, some participants collated a reading list, drawing upon all the resources mentioned in the lectures; many set up study groups; others performed extra peer assessments voluntarily, and many more articulated or answered people’s questions and concerns in the forums.)

Doing more to foster the communal learning aspect of the course in a more targeted and deliberate fashion would further enhance the experience.

 

The clarity of assignments is ripe for improvement. Assignment requirements were not always initially clear, and the overall development of the course and destination of the design project was not clear at the start. (Maybe this helped avoid putting some people off by concealing the workload!) Over the course, these details have been hammered out, ensuring that next time through there will be more clarity in the assignment wording, with explanatory examples, and a clear roadmap of project work and deadlines.

Whilst sometimes the confusion was frustrating, it never dampened my excitement at being in the first cohort to try out this course. It felt like everyone involved in the process  was learning, including the teachers, so I didn’t mind the rough edges (particularly as the course was so good, and completely free). That was pretty cool.

 

This has been a fantastic course, and I’m still in awe of the fact that it was available for free. I’ll finish by mirroring Scott’s observation: “seeing the online education space really blossom gives me a lot of hope for the future.” I’m excited by the online educational space that has been emerging in force over the last year, and am already plotting my next courses. I’m half-way through Power Searching with Google, and have signed up for Udacity’s CS101.

I’d like to extend my sincerest thanks to Scott Klemmer and the team at Stanford and Coursera who made this course happen. I’ll do my best to use what I’ve learned, to continue improving, and to help others do the same.

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The internet as a production platform and cultural space

In this post I’d like to reflect on some recent events in the online community, as a springboard for thinking about the internet as a publishing platform and cultural space more generally.

First: SOPA. The Stop Online Piracy Act was introduced in the US House of Representatives in October 2011 with the apparent aim of expanding the ability of US law enforcement to combat the online dissemination of copyrighted intellectual property.

SOPA was met by vocal dissent from pretty much every worthwhile corner of the internet, and the public relations battle was on. Opposition to the bill could have been painted as an alliance between layabout internet pirates and Silicon Valley tycoons, all seeking to profit from the content made by others. But any efforts to do this were unsuccessful.

I opposed – and continue to oppose – SOPA. I am anxious about instituting effectively worldwide censorship without due legal oversight. I believe that the burden of proof is the wrong way round, with the establishment of innocence seeming to be of more importance than the obligation to reasonably prove guilt. Whilst criminalising links rather than content makes pragmatic sense, it’s troubling to see law enforcement focus on criminalising speech rather than the more substantive crime at its root. And with the shutdown of Megaupload (a popular location for legal and illegal file hosting), taking place at around the same time as the height of the SOPA controversy, it doesn’t seem as if law enforcement is particularly powerless to target hosts directly.

More importantly, perhaps, I have a strong feeling that the future belongs not to last century’s broadcast media industry – and its associated delivery and legal frameworks – but rather to the people who are not only forging the way into the wilds of the digital space, but who are also setting up a functional, safe and productive society there. Our best bet is to support them in this process, rather than ceding control to the tired and confused pioneers of yesteryear.

Part of this process is mapping property rights onto the digital space, or, alternatively, setting up new systems which sidestep the fallout of the infinite reproducibility of digital works. The lumbering enlightenment copyright model has to some extent at least been turned to the benefit of large media rights-holding organisations. Now is a good time to reconfigure how we support and fund content creators, and how we deliver content.

Large-scale production processes, such as the creation of Hollywood films, require a considerable investment. Organisations or individuals with the money to fund such ventures must shrewdly evaluate the potential of any such investment opportunity. They seek a return on their investments, rather than a loss, and as such are vigilant in declining to fund projects that do not seem likely to be successful. But these gatekeepers are a burden.

An overarching concern for profitability can hamper the pursuit of true creative success, and the commercial rewards that sometimes come with it. Sometimes the gatekeepers can  hold back the creation of something that content creators want to make, and consumers want to purchase. Whilst the internet has not yet been used to source funds for a creative venture on the scale of a Hollywood film, in some cases it does allow the middleman to be circumvented.

Kickstarter is an website for funding creative projects. A project explains its aims, sets an investment target, and requests funding from the community. If enough people pledge to invest in the project and it meets its funding target, the pledging users are then charged and the project receives the funding. Projects usually offer different rewards to backers for different levels of funding pledge. If the project does not meet the target, the users are not charged.

In the PC gaming community, Tim Schafer is something of a legend. As the creative force behind some of the great adventure games – Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, The Secret of Monkey Island and Psychonauts -he has a considerable amount of prestige and reputation. Fans have continually called for Schafer to make an ‘old-school’ adventure game, but no publisher has been interested. So Schafer went directly to the community through Kickstarter, and achieved the $400,000 target on the very first day. By the time the funding window closed, the project had obtained nearly ten times the funding target.

Similarly, the Code Hero project set a more modest target of $100,000. With 10 days to go, it didn’t seem that the project was anywhere near reaching its target. But a concerted mobilisation of people who believed in the concept and the project – particularly through Reddit, but also through established community hubs and blogs – meant that the project gained momentum and raised $200,000. Kickstarters for other projects have burst into  prominence – Wasteland 2 and Takedown are two funding success stories so far. Kickstarter is an American platform, but other platforms, such as indiegogo, are starting to make a name for themselves.

Whilst Kickstarter projects do not necessarily have the detailed specification or deliverables that other projects might have, this may aid creative flexibility. The target community is well placed to judge the merits of the creator and the proposed creation. Giving them a role in funding projects they want to see is a neat way of closing the circle.

I expect that such projects won’t always work smoothly, but that doesn’t undermine the potential of the platform as a whole. Indeed, over time I would expect its robustness and rigour to increase as these questions are worked out through painful experience. We need to see, for example, how much leeway an expectant community will give the creators, and how creators will impose order on the creative process with the buzz of the community in their ears. Will it help or hinder their work? I’ll be watching the Double Fine adventure develop with this question in mind. We also need to see how any over-funding is dealt with. If a game ends up with more funding than requested, how should the process of deciding what to do with that extra funding work, and how can existing funders consent to to or reject this? Certainly Kickstarter isn’t the solution to all the challenges of developing, promoting and publishing a creative work, but the online space as a whole has done an impressive job in these few examples.

Broadly speaking, the process of delivering a product to an audience entails creation, promotion, and distribution. Kickstarter has shown how creation can be funded. Furthermore, in both of the above examples, promotion was largely taken care of by the community, with social media and the internet’s impressive ability to talk to itself driving the process. The basic Code Hero public relations and communications work wasn’t particularly slick, but it communicated the vision and concept sufficiently well to win over the community, which then amplified the message more powerfully than any fancy piece of marketing copy.

So what about distribution platforms? How should these work in the online space; what does a good online distribution platform for digital content look like, and what about piracy?

The PC games industry gives us another good example here. Valve led the way into digital distribution and have made a real success of it. I would argue that this has not only been because Valve took a chance on digital distribution at a very early stage, but because of the strong conceptual underpinnings of their Steam distribution platform.

As Valve’s Gabe Newell asserted in a recent interview, too many people in the industry are misunderstanding piracy, leading them to implement ineffective draconian solutions:

“people always want to treat [piracy] as a pricing issue, [thinking] that people are doing this because they can get it for free and so we just need to create these draconian DRM systems or ani-piracy systems”. But from Valve’s extensive experience running Steam, this “just really doesn’t match up with the data.”

Rather, he argues, companies need to focus on delivering value to customers, and on maximising the opportunities afforded by the digital and online space to do this:

“You want to figure out how you can connect customers with the right collection of content and services and you need to get away from the sort of one size fits all broadcast mentality. Pricing is one of those things where a lot of people are still approaching it in almost a pre-internet fashion instead of seeing that there’s actually an opportunity to do a better job of delivering the right stuff to the right customer for the right combination of pieces.”

Whilst the Steam platform is secured by some formidable anti-piracy software, it feels more enabling than obtrusive as a platform. It is very effective at connecting the user with their games – wherever they may be – and at delivering valuable experiences (through the Friends service, Community and Achievements). There’s also a great deal of consumer surplus to be had through the Steam store, as its regular sales allow users to purchase games at impressively low prices.

From the perspective of the producer, we may be simply moving from one middleman to another (information on the how much a cut Valve takes from transactions is not public). But for consumers, this heralds an improvement from pre-online distribution. The platform is being used to increase value rather than to restrict the user. This is why the Steam platform has gained such positive consent in the community. Valve have been rewarded for empowering the consumer: people are prepared to pay if they are given a valuable experience.

Digital distribution may be a backwards step, however, in terms of content ownership and the persistence of a user’s access to material. If Valve were to go bust, what would be the fate of all users’ games? How would you be able to download anything, or even access the games already installed on your hard drive? This is a real and legitimate concern which has not yet been answered. Creating and distributing digital content allows for some incredible advances, but ownership of digital content is not as physical and permanent and secure as placing a new tome on your bookshelf. But digital content delivered through an online service can be more secure and permanent than any mere physical object, as long as the servers stay up and people are able to access them. I’m not sure what the long-run solution to this problem is, but I’m confident that Valve are a good organisation to be entrusting with the search for a meaningful solution.

I’m certain that the digital medium and online publishing allows for a more creative and connected world, with empowered consumers and producers. There are plenty of rough edges, but the examples reviewed here lead me to feel positive about the direction of travel.

The infinite reproducibility of digital content is the biggest free lunch in human history. Let’s work out how to use it to maximise the benefits to people, and perhaps to improve our society along the way. The digital pioneers continue onwards, forging new terrain and setting up new systems to allow us to reap the bounty of this fertile land. For the time being at least, it feels that the right people are in the driving seat.

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Why my resolutions for 2012 will only become clear at the end of the year

I would like to do a myriad of things with my free time this year. But actions and practice are ultimately what counts. For a desire to be real it must be real and relevant in the moment; not just in the hazy dreams of the new year’s birth, remembered at arms-length.

So this post is a snappy summation of some of what I now feel I would like to do with my free time this year, to serve as a reference when I am at liberty to indulge my whims and fancies. A shopping list of inspiration and treats to be indulged in, rather than a list of chores or resolutions to which I must adhere, lest I be unhappy or a failure.

I feel no compulsion to go through the stress of marking out what I must do in the coming year, and then binding myself to it for the rest of 2012, successfully or unsuccessfully. Rather, my priorities and desires will flourish in the present – indeed, that is their only home – and we shall dispassionately see which threads appeal most in the only moment that matters.

The below list is designed to serve as inspiration, and reflects my expectations about what I might enjoy doing this year. But 2012 will not necessarily be a failure if I consciously and willingly decide to not partake in any of the below in my free time. That would simply suggest that I’ve found some other things that I enjoy doing even more. 2012 will be a failure if I misallocate my free time and waste it on things I don’t actually want to do, or which don’t stand much chance of making me happy.

In short: here’s a list of stuff I think I’d like to do this year. I resolve to be mindful of this list when deciding what to do with any unit of free time. Let’s see what I actually want to do most!

1) Playing guitar – probably with a focus on rhythm guitar technique and learning to play some specific tracks by artists I like.

2) Recording and creating music.

3) Meditation.

4) Learning about coding and computer science. I would like to improve my shallow and patchy knowledge and understanding of computers; to obtain some agency over them.

4) Learning about philosophy: I know practically nothing about the discipline. Presumably it will help me understand – or at least think about – myself, my actions, and other people, and how I might live better.

5) Reading fiction.

6) Reading non-fiction and academic prose.

7) Playing the best computer games.

8) Consuming quality broadcast media.

9) Attending cultural productions.

10) Listening to music and expanding my aural horizons.

11) Spending proper, dedicated time with my friends. Meeting up for a drink or a meal, rather than hurriedly half-interacting online.

12) Volunteering – using my skills and abilities to make some sort of positive difference outside of my work.

A desire to learn, encounter and discover runs through this list.

There are two other intentions to note, which I will not mark as resolutions, and do not conceive of as part of the other list:

a) Running.

b) Blogging.

What will their fate be this year? Will their survival depend upon marriage to at least one item from the above list?

My resolutions for 2012 are therefore:

1) To map out, as faithfully as I can, the full range of what I would like to do with my spare time.

2) To update this list with any further desires that seem relevant.

3) To mindfully choose how to spend my spare time. To choose from this list and to choose in a real attempt to maximise my own happiness.

I don’t want to waste time agonizing about priorities. Having roughly mapped out the terrain in which I expect to enjoy myself, it’s time to get going. Happy 2012 everyone.

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How can we tell if digital is good for education?

Last month I was at The Schools Network‘s 2011 Annual Conference, and was fortunate to enjoy the keynotes of three particularly interesting educational thinkers – Alan November, Lord Puttnam and Tony Wagner. Their ideas and my discussions with colleagues have helped drive and shape my thinking, and have encouraged me to set down some of my thoughts on the current possibilities for education.

The main topic at the conference was the place of technology in education, and its potentially transformative role. Some delegates were grappling with this question in practice in their schools, whilst others were still uncertain as to whether to embrace technology in the classroom. I’d like to take this opportunity to propose a conceptual toolkit for evaluating digital technology in education, before applying it in the field.

The acid test for any educational procedure or process is whether it improves and promotes learning. So before we look at digital technology I’d like to start by looking at the learning process, the culture of learning, and the purposes of learning. If we arrive at a shared understanding of these, we’ll be in a stronger position to evaluate the potential – or otherwise – of digital technologies for education.

Our understanding of learning has broadened from simply seeing it as a deferential act – the transmission of knowledge by an expert and its absorption by those under instruction. We now give more focus to the interactive and peer-led elements of the learning process. Group discussion in the classroom, for example, has increased in prominence at the expense of ‘chalk and talk’.

Unfortunately, however, this more passive provision of learning persists – a situation not helped by our examination system. And so there is a problem of a misunderstanding or misapplication of the process of learning that pre-dates digital technology. Whether we embrace digital technologies or not, this problem should be addressed. Perhaps there’s something in digital technology that could be used to do so.

Learning has always been an active process. The process of revising for exams exemplifies this – it’s focused on active engagement rather than vainly hoping for the passive absorption of knowledge. Thinking back to some of the strongest elements of my Cambridge education – writing weekly essays and then developing arguments in one-on-one supervisions, and in fantastic informal interdisciplinary discussion with peers at mealtimes – were all intensely active learning experiences. Lectures, on the other hand, were less helpful.

The conference’s keynote speakers were of a similar opinion as to the nature of the learning process. Alan November argued that the core components of the learning process are purpose, autonomy and mastery, and that they are not currently being adequately facilitated. He posed a question spanning both the culture and process of learning, asking “Who owns the learning?” He advocated that learning should be owned and driven by the individual learner, rather than by teachers. Similarly, Tony Wagner argued that the current system socialises young people into being passive consumers (by focusing on instilling specific competencies and units of knowledge for exam success) rather than motivated active learners.

But perhaps this exploration of the processes and culture of learning is missing the point. Any attempt to assess an education system must surely ask about its purpose. So what’s the point of education? Whilst I would argue that the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual and personal growth is in and of itself a positive for society and the individual, it remains the case that the investment of economic resources is most easily justifiable if it produces economic returns . So what does the economy need out of education?

Tony Wagner’s excellent keynote approached the digital question from this perspective, asking “What does it mean to be an educated adult today?” Tony argued that we should focus less on teaching units of content and more on developing the skills by which knowledge is mastered. Knowledge is constantly changing, so the skills rather than the content must be the focus. Having surveyed the demands of business leaders of their workforces, he concluded that “Employers don’t care about what you know. They care about what you can do with what you know.”

Tony mapped out a set of ‘survival skills’ for navigating the 21st century economy:
1) Critical thinking and problem-solving
2) Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
3) Agility and adaptability
4) Initiative and entrepreneurialism
5) Effective oral and written communication
6) Accessing and analysing information (For example, if you memorised the periodic table of elements, or the planets, even only a few years ago, your knowledge is now out of date.)
7) Curiosity and imagination

I wonder what an education system predicated on instilling these skills, rather than one based around discrete subjects and knowledge bases, would look like. Presumably it would still have space for students to follow personal interests and intellectual abstractions to at least the same extent as the current system allows. If that is the case, then perhaps even the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual  advancement for its own sake has nothing to fear from such a reconfiguration.

I would agree with Tony Wagner, and see the purpose of learning as developing conceptual flexibility and an ability to interrogate and master skills and information. And if we place this conceptual and analytical ability at the fore, rather than prioritising any specific unit of knowledge, then the distinction between more practical and less practical subjects dissolves. The place of arts subjects is secured – indeed, perhaps the more abstract and purely conceptual the better. It’s no surprise that humanities degrees are highly valued for the skills they inculcate, even if my knowledge of the twelfth-century renaissance will probably never see daily use.

How should we conceive of – and define – conceptual and analytical ability? Is conceptual and analytical ability a meta-skill, or can this too be subdivided? As a history graduate who has utlised and developed a wide variety of both practical and theoretical toolkits spanning linguistic analysis, visual rhetoric, political processes, cultural analysis work with bodies of statistical evidence, perhaps my analytical toolkit could be sharper and wider. Perhaps a richer understanding of mathematics, IT systems and philosophy would be of benefit.

So I agree with Lord Puttnam of Queensgate that computer science is the essential knowledge of the twenty-first century, in the sense that we should be actively engaged with the transformative impact of digital technologies, rather than mere consumers; but I think the issue runs deeper than that.

Having looked at the processes of learning, the culture of learning, and the purpose of learning, we are in a position to draw together the toolkit that will allow us to properly think about digital technology and education.

So in evaluating the potential of any piece of digital technology for education, we must ask:

1) Does it foster active – and perhaps peer-led – learning?
2) Does it help us meet the purpose of education?

Testing out this toolkit in the wilds of digital technology, it flags up some serious questions when we look at the ‘traditional’ e-learning model.

It’s easy enough to harness computers to deliver some level of teaching and assessment electronically. In the traditional e-learning model this is based around the user rote-learning specific units of information, or simple competencies, and being tested on this knowledge by the software. Whilst incredibly useful and powerful to a point, by allowing students to master units of competency, this model risks being a step back to the days of passive learners, and deferential, non-interactive education. In almost all cases, learners should be able to question, disrupt, link ideas, and challenge (I would add a ‘challenge’ or ‘panic’ button to any static e-learning system). So we need to make sure that digital technology is harnessed to allow the learning experience to improve.

Thankfully the social media revolution presents us with the opportunity to truly harness the power of computers and the internet to improve learning as a social process. Social media is predicated upon communities, interaction and content creation and sharing. Social media and learning are therefore natural partners. Let’s quickly explore some examples of this.

Online publishing is easy, and collaborative tools (such as Google Docs and wikis) mean that group learning is readily achievable. By collating, interrogating and sharing information as groups, learners can grapple with the provisional nature of knowledge and improve the skills needed to continue to navigate in a world of knowledge in flux.

Forums are a great vehicle for discussion-based learning. I’ve also recently been recommended the edmodo platform by @wjputt, which is basically a Facebook for communities of learners and teachers. I’m currently setting up an online philosophy study group to see how continuing collaborative higher education might work in this space.

The online space can be used to create new communities of learning – outside and beyond the classroom. These can extend beyond the curriculum and have a life that extends beyond a single year group’s experience in a single academic year. As Alan November asked: “Are your students leaving a legacy that will benefit other students?”
So what are the key messages from this discussion?

When evaluating the potential of a digital technology, ask yourself:

1) Does this new technology foster active – and perhaps peer-led – learning?
2) Does this new technology help us meet the purpose of education?

Static e-learning can be useful, but education usually requires much more than this.
To obtain the best from digital technology:

1) Think social. Online collaborative learning, through wikis and forums, works hand-in-hand with content creation and publishing, both of which are now very easy.

2) Think transformative. It seems that digital technology offers some solutions that map nicely onto existing problems. It also offers the possibility of an educational transformation, and must not be seen simply as an extra ingredient in the pedagogical mix. As Lord Puttnam of Queensgate asserted: “if all we do with technology is support existing practices, why would we expect anything better than existing results?” So we should not just digitize old practices and methodologies; rather, we must fully harness the transformed possibilities of learning through the digital medium.

So whilst it’s important to rigorously analyse the usefulness of digital technology for learning, it is even more important to remember that we’re only just starting to learn about how digital technology could help improve learning.

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Growing Up

I was trapped on the train from London back to Cambridge.
Months after graduation I reeled at change and time, looking back on a breadth of possibility broken down forever by being lived through.

Just by sitting here I advance away from my essence, shackling my identity to a succession of events; a once-radiant possibility prismed and chained into a mundane hue. Where once there was anything now there is one thing.
Unravelling my delusions of expansive possibility, the act of living destroys me:
Iron rails are far from the glory of God.

And at this moment I have to tell you all who I am, louder and clearer than ever.
Now I must fence myself in from what I have not become, to close off from unformed potential and claim that this route was the plan, and the only journey to happiness.

Looking back I don’t regret the way I’ve come, but to see life concrete and done is death.
This is all I can be, all I was. Track is being laid and I can’t stop it.
Whether I worry about it or not I can’t get off the train.

Perhaps I’m reassured that this is nonsense.
If our lives can be narrated or seen as a passage, then they don’t work as trains.
The points through which our journeys run are anything but fixed and dead.
I conjure them in the present through disposition and focus; they move and appear as I will. Controlling my present mind, I direct or subvert the entire journey.

Life is a shifting dreamed canvas, with nightmares and monsters.
I have no idea where I’m coming or going, and cannot presume to compute trajectories.
It isn’t a rigid line that I can control or not control forever.
We can master the present, whatever the warping patterns that dance around our pasts and futures. Every moment exists on its own terms, and so do I.

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