A USB port for informal learning

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I’ve been part of a team working on an unusual (and dare I use the word, innovative) course at the OU. It’s called ‘Making your learning count‘, and the unusual thing about it is that it doesn’t really set out to teach a particular topic. Rather it seeks to recognise the learning that people bring with them from informal means, such as OER and MOOCs. There are several challenges in this. Firstly, we can’t just formally recognise all possible OER, so we have to get students to do something to demonstrate their learning. But then secondly, having gone for this broad approach, as opposed to just accrediting a specific MOOC say, you then have to make any activity generic enough to cover people coming in from diverse domains.

The approach the team have taken then is to base it around 9 tasks. These focus on developing a learning plan, producing a means of communicating your learning to others, making interdisciplinary connections between subjects, and developing peer assessment and digital communication skills. They’ll be guided by their tutor in this, but I think it’s hopefully one of those courses where the diversity of knowledge people bring is a key benefit. You get to see connections between your subject and by explaining your own one to others, consolidate your own understanding. At the end of it students will then have converted their informal learning into 30 points of OU formal credit. Obviously we hope they go on to study with us further, but even if not, it helps legitimise that learning and hopefully make the prospect of formal study at some point less daunting.

At the moment it’s focused around OpenLearn as a pilot, but in its approach I see it as part of a solution to a thorny issue that has circled around OER, MOOCs and informal learning, which is how you help people make use of that knowledge acquired elsewhere. Approaches to this include challenge exams (as practised by Athabasca), more flexible degree programmes (for example the OERu’s first year free study), or giving credit for specific MOOCs (eg the OU and Leeds with FutureLearn). We’ve always had recognition of prior learning (RPL), but to be honest, this has often been so complex and costly to realise that you were better off just studying the courses.

All of these are valid approaches and I think we’ll see more of them. I see our course as the first of this type for the OU, and as well as allowing OER based study to come into the university context, it can be adapted for specific needs and projects. For example a version might allow recognition of sector training, corporate learning, as well as different levels, specific disciplines or providers. So, I see it as a big old USB port sticking out of Walton Hall, saying ‘insert learning here’. It’ll be interesting to see if it gets many takers as it’s still quite a difficult concept to convey, but one that will be increasingly useful I think.

Sci-Hub and the Rebecca Riots

Going on one of my extended, and tenuous analogy skits, you are warned.

In order to consider recent developments in open access publishing, particularly Sci-Hub, and #ICanHazPDF I’m going to go back to, where else, a set of rural riots in 19th Century Wales. The Rebecca Riots as they were known, were a series of protests and disturbances in South-West Wales concentrated in the period 1839-1844. The target of the protests were usually toll-gates, which were demolished by large crowds during night-time raids, although toll-gates were seen as symbolic of a wider series of grievances. The leader of the crowd would be dressed in women’s clothes and be referred to as Rebecca, although who fulfilled this role would vary depending on location. The origins of the name were biblical, from a passage in Genesis 24:60: ‘And they blessed Rebekah and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them’. Over 200 such incidences occurred during this period, causing the Government to mobilise the army and extra police. These were largely ineffectual in preventing the protests however, as the movement had popular local support, and retribution was threatened against informers. The increase in tolls constituted the main cause of vexation amongst the populace, it’s important for our analogy to see this as the final provocation in a long line of injustices. Other issues were also gathered under the Rebecca umbrella, including the imposition of workhouses, absent landlords, and suppression of the Welsh language. The outcome of the Riots was a commission that largely ceded much to the protestors, and sought to improve conditions. The riots are popularly interpreted as a statement of Welsh identity and of rural protest.

The authoritative account of the Rebecca Riots is that of Williams. Although the riots can be interpreted as a straightforward protest against an increase in the number of toll gates and their respective tolls, which had a particularly damaging effect on farmers who needed to transport lime to improve soil, Williams provides a comprehensive account of the multiple causes that led to the riots. These include a decaying gentry system that did not represent the people; a language barrier; poor treatment by the judiciary; a lack of agricultural innovation so the soil became depleted; the strong Methodist nonconformist influence; and perhaps most significantly, extreme poverty. This combination of factors created the environment wherein the increase in tolls proved to be a catalyst for protest.

The toll gates were owned by different groups of trustees, depending on their location. The first protest where Rebecca was seen occurred in 1839, when toll gate contractor Thomas Bullin erected four new gates, specifically to increase profits from lime traffic. The gate at Efail-wen was destroyed in May, a week after opening. Then on 6th June a mob of some 300-400 destroyed it again, and a week later the Maes-gwyn gate. The persistence and scale of these protests led to soldiers being drafted in to keep the peace. This was largely unsuccessful as a tactic as on the 17th July a crowd again assembled at Efail-wen, and here the leader was addressed as ‘Becca’. On the 23rd July the Whitland trustees, who owned the tolls held an emergency meeting and the four gates were revoked. This stopped the immediate violence but set a precedent, which would lead to the more widespread and persistent protests of 1842-1844.

The 1844 Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry for South Wales, established to examine the causes of the disturbances, identified five contributing factors: the turnpikes and their mismanagement in the affected areas; Tithes, in particular the Tithe Act of 1836 which made payment in money, rather than in kind, compulsory; the New Poor Law of 1834 which led to a loss of control; Magistrates Clerks Fees which varied widely and could be ‘unreasonably high’; the Country Rate which increased and was occasionally put to inappropriate usage, although abuses were deemed to be ‘greatly over-rated’. In general, although there was some criticism of the rioters, the commission interpreted their actions as arising from an intolerable set of conditions.

Which brings me onto Sci-Hub, and other acts of rebellion against proprietary access to academic publications. There are a number of parallels I find interesting. Firstly, although we can criticise a specific form the rebellion takes, as with Rebecca, a number of factors have accumulated over time to make some form of rebellion almost inevitable. Of course, an academic not being able to access a paper is very different from poverty stricken farmers, in the 19th century, but some of the grievances are similar.

Firstly, the riots occurred when the Toll owners became excessively greedy. Up until that point farmers had paid a reasonable toll, but these were increasingly interpreted as means of making more and more money. Some instances would lead to a farmer crossing three tolls within the space of 100 metres or so – if you have to do a return journey to fetch lime for your soil, that’s six tolls just to start your work. Similarly, the introduction of big deals, increased profit margins, and increased costs. Secondly, the toll owners were often absent, English and uncaring – any connection between the gentry and the local population had been lost. This reflects also the decaying relationship between academics and publishers, what was once seen as mutually beneficial and supportive is now viewed as remote, highly commercialised and predatory. Thirdly, there was sufficient local support from the community. It is undoubtedly true that there was intimidation involved to stop people informing, but generally the movement could be successful because the local population backed it. Fearing an uprising similar to that seen in Ireland, it was this popular support that most scared the Government. In academic terms also the practice of sharing articles is now seen not as something done by a rebellious, or technical clique, but widely supported by general practice. Lastly, the farmers in Wales were responding to changing economic climate around them. They were missing out on the benefits of the industrial revolution (transport links bypassed them for instance), working soil that was increasingly poor quality and facing the imposition of a draconian new Poor Law. While obviously very different in degree, academics on increasing precarious work contracts, operating in an austerity driven economy and threatened with excessive punishment are feeling similarly aggrieved and less likely to look generously upon the wealthy owners.

The message here is that when suppression failed, the authorities were ultimately forced to concede the grievances were valid, and a more equitable arrangement was ultimately established. Tolls are pinch points in historic change and we are witnessing this now in the digital era. It’s not always pretty, but as one commentator said of the Rebecca mob that descended on a toll, it is a ‘romantic and fearful sight’.

The Golden/Dark Age of what?

24/52 Dominoes (Explore)

One of the rewarding things about being in ed tech is that because it’s very fast moving you get to act all wise with very little experience. I mean, I started in this in 1995, I’ve been through interactive CD-ROM, electronic tutor groups, intelligent tutoring systems, elearning, VLEs, virtual worlds, elearning standards and metadata, learning objects, personalised learning, OER, blogging, web 2.0, PLEs, MOOCs, intelligent tutoring systems (again), open textbooks, personalised learning (again), learning analytics, and a whole bunch more. To do the same in another discipline I’d have to be approximately 250 years old.

When I reflect on this I’m struck by two sides of the same notion: we don’t realise often the implications of where we are currently (which is not to say people don’t like to try predictions, ed tech is full of futuroligists). An example is that, like many people, I passed my tenth anniversary on Twitter this year. Half jokingly, but also with a tone of regret we bemoan how friendly, open, exciting twitter was in those early days. Remember the first time you met someone face to face who you’d only known on twitter? Sava Singh rightly points out that being able to moan about how Twitter isn’t as good as it used to be is a form of privilege. But even accepting this, it is definitely a different type of place now. Similarly, people often talk about the ‘golden age of blogging’ as if was in the fifteenth century and not around 2006.

Which led me to think, what might we look back on in ten years time and consider 2017 the Golden Age of? Not much comes to mind, but perhaps it is the start of a social awareness around the power of online media, after the shitstorm of 2016, the acceptance that this is not peripheral anymore and thus a critical perspective that goes beyond “Use it/Don’t Use it”. Or maybe it’s just the Golden Age of Instagram, which I still kinda like as a social space.

The flip side of this is, what are the negative aspects that might spread out? There has always been unpleasant corners of the internet – some of these remain very unpleasant, but confined to those who seek them out. Others spread beyond their community of nastiness and infect society as a whole. The alt-right, gamergate, 4Chan pits are an example of this – people such as Audrey Watters warned us that this behaviour wasn’t confined to just a group of spiteful nerds, and she was right. Trump is the end game of all that behaviour and it doesn’t get much bigger at expanding beyond your chatroom than that. So if we are in an unrecognised Golden Age of something, we are also probably in the early phases of the next major social problem (although to be fair, most of them seem pretty much out in the open now). Islamic extremism, alt-right – these bubbled away in dark corners of the net for years and then spread into everyday life. What’s the next candidate?

Of course, I’m also wise enough now not to have any answers to these questions, but simply to pose them to you.

Bridges between formal and informal learning

Jogging

I’m considering doing an occasional series based on ed tech developments at the Open University. I’m interested in ones that roughly align with my take on ed tech, are offering practical, often small scale benefits and link to broader developments beyond the OU. So hopefully of interest outside the institution itself.

I was thinking of this when I came across the unofficial OU counselling and forensic psychology site, run by a few of my colleagues at the OU. It’s hosted on Reclaim Hosting (I think on my recommendation, Jim you owe me), so sits outside of the official OU structure. This was partly a practical decision I think (it’s just easier to set up externally) but it also has a symbolic significance – what is interesting about this project is that it sits on the border of the university and the external world, a sort of semi-formal approach.

The site performs a number of functions, but primarily it was set up because the team are developing a new course in this area. Graham Pike said that the ‘our original intention was to find a way of engaging students in the process of creating a course from the start’. So they use the forum to engage with potential and existing students and shape the course accordingly, and they are crowdsourcing images and art for the course, and providing a space for resources that sits outside the formal course. Psychology is a subject in particular that has many everyday resonances, and so providing an open space where even those mot studying the course can gain from it blurs the boundary between the university and ‘out there’ in a useful manner. Further on, the site provides a means of students trialling, and coming in to the course, and vice versa, for those who have completed it to stay connected and informed.

There’s nothing particularly new in any of this – no radical new technology, no (you guessed it) disruption, but it represents a nice example of how we can operate beyond dichotomies. The course will have an existing VLE presence, and much of the material will be traditional OU content. But it is not a choice between this or a wholly student generated curriculum. Similarly technology is not a choice between locked in the VLE or a totally distributed open tech approach. In ed tech there is often a tendency to become frustrated with current practice and advocate for its wholesale removal (and there is an obsession with change for its own sake also). What this project highlights I feel is that small, practical, implementable changes can offer useful routes through the noise. It is this bridging function between new approaches and traditional education in a manner that doesn’t demand the wholesale reformation of either and can be implemented right now, that appeals to me.

What if the US had an OU

Study group meeting in the shade on a Sunday

On Facebook, George Veletsianos asked “What educational innovation do you see as “democratizing” and why?”. Needless to say, I championed open universities. Not just The (UK) Open University, but the model which it first developed and which then got replicated across the world. Africa, Asia and Europe in particular adopted the model of a national, high quality, part-time, distance education university with low or no, entry qualifications. Each of these will have educated thousands of people who were previously excluded from education. It is hard to think of a single innovation in modern higher education that has had such a democratising effect.

While Canada has Athabasca, and TRU, the US is a notable absence in the list however. So much so that OU even tried to launch a US OU in the 1999. It did not go well. Open SUNY is a more recent attempt to fulfill some of this function.

But in the US, distance ed was usually allied to private colleges, offering correspondence tuition. Its reputation is not one of high quality. Similarly, when elearning gained ground, it was the for-profit provider, University of Phoenix, which gained the central position of part-time, online provider, rather than a national university. Much of the function of an open university is fulfilled by community colleges in the US, but these tend to be local based. We can probably think of several reasons why an Open University of the US never arose – the size of the country, decentralised education to states making a national university problematic (Athabasca suffers from this with provincial politics in Canada), the bad reputation of correspondence teaching, and a large for-profit sector that would see a national open university as a threat (and some form of socialism no doubt). And yet other countries have had these limitations, and with its narrative of the american dream, one could argue that an open university that allows someone to work while gaining a degree to improve their career, would be a natural fit.

I wonder if there had been a well recognised and widely respected US Open University, what the impact might have been? As I mentioned previously, I was surprised at how little awareness there was of the OU, even amongst people in the open education field, in the US. Playing ‘what if?’ I think a US OU would have made silicon valley ed tech less given to a year zero mentality. They would firstly be aware that MOOCs were not the ‘first generation of online learning‘ and also aware that everyone else is aware of this too. Also, there is a very healthy community of open universities, and given the prominence of the approach in Asia and Africa, this community is not a western dominated one. Open University type conferences look much more diverse than many north american ed tech ones. Being aware of, and an active participant in this community might have helped ease some of the cultural imperialism accusations against MOOCs. And open universities, although they can be reluctant and slow to adopt technology sometimes, generally have an approach to ed tech which is based on pragmatism and student benefit for the distance learner. This attitude is also absent from much of the ed tech start up rhetoric.

I’m not naive, even in the UK where the OU is well known, we still fall for hype, tech buzz and are guilty of insufficient diversity in ed tech. But it is nonetheless an interesting question I think to consider what the impact of a successful US OU would have had on the evolution of ed tech, both in the US, and as their developments have such a global influence, for all of us. In a parallel university maybe…

An Approach for Ed Tech

Studious

I’ve been involved in a few projects recently that have made me consider what my approach actually is to ed tech. One way of thinking about this is to try the thought experiment of imagining you are in charge of a fund procuring ed tech (or if you prefer, responsible for an ed tech budget at your institution). What would be your principles or criteria be for determining which ones to fund?

Given developments over the past ten years I’ve mixed in a fair bit of criticism into my initial ed tech solutionism, but I think the resulting mix might be getting towards a pragmatic approach to what usefully works. So here’s an attempt at defining my approach:

Treat them like research – have definite research questions or hypotheses. Then you will know whether it has achieved it.

Consider social impacts – where does this tech come from? What will be the impact on students and educators? Technology does not exist in a social vacuum.

Track the data implications – who owns the data, what data does it generate?

Avoid hype – as soon as anyone mentions disruption, revolution, transformation, etc walk out the door. These terms are usually a disguise for not having a clear, testable (and therefore falsifiable) benefit.

Focus on achievable goals within a year – related to the above, if the tech is capable of an improvement then it should be demonstrable within a year. It may be modest at this stage.

Avoid inverse investment scrutiny – ed tech often suffers from an inverse scrutiny problem. If you want to do something small scale and experimental with one class you have to justify every aspect. If you want to invest millions then vague goals and rhetoric are sufficient. Flip this round – small scale experiment should be lightweight and without some of the constraints I’m listing here. Just see what happens. Large scale investment needs to be clear what it is doing and why.

Have a clear audience who will benefit – not some vague utopian dream, or a one off TEDX type anecdote about a whiz kid in a village in a developing country, but a clear benefit for a particular group. And then test whether it is true.

Give educators agency – generally educators like, you know, educating, and tools that help them do that and help their students will receive more enthusiasm. Indeed making educators enthusiastic (again) is often one of the biggest benefits of ed tech. So tech that reduces their role or makes teaching less worthwhile is losing from the start. And on a related note…

Talk in educational terms – students are not customers or data points. Learning is not a transaction. We are not Uberfying education. Ed tech projects should communicate in a language that is meaningful to students and educators.

Address scalability and reproducibility – with lots of investment and attention we can all get an improvement, or a shiny product. Will that effect still be there five years from now and across different students? Caveat to this – if you are targeting a very specific group then it doesn’t need to be applicable to all learners, just not a one off.

Appreciate student diversity – not all learners are the same. What works for some will be despised by others, what is easy for this student will be a barrier to one with a different set of needs, and what is helpful in one place is interfering in another. Which brings me onto the next point –

Avoid technological panacea – a range of tools and approaches will be required for different students, disciplines, functions, etc.

Don’t buy black boxes or alchemy – any solution that basically has a “magic happens here” box in it, means that either they are conning you or that there is stuff happening in there that you need to understand.

There is some overlap in these, and even a bit of contradiction – scalability matters for some projects but less so for small scale investments. But this list would give you a more realistic, impactful focus on ed tech that has tangible benefits I feel.

The bespoke licence

Black and White Gavel in Courtroom - Law Books

There was a bit of a hoo-ha the other day when the popular photography site Unsplash announced they were no longer using the CC0 licence but instead switching to their own one. Creative Commons’ Ryan Merkley wrote a blog post in which he claimed the new licence was revokable. This is a big no-no in open licences – imagine if you’ve used an openly licensed image in a book and then the licence changes – do you withdraw the book, pay a fee? For precisely this reason, CC licences are irrevokable – you can’t change it afterwards. After some twitter to and fro-ing Unsplash said their licence was always irrevokable (to be fair to Ryan their post originally said “we allow Unsplash contributors to stop further distribution of their photo” which sounds pretty much like revokability).

The reason Unsplash have moved away from CC0 is that other sites were effectively creating clones of theirs and then charging as stock images. Their licence now states: “This license does not include the right to compile photos from Unsplash to replicate a similar or competing service.”

So it was a bit of a storm in a teacup. It’s clear that (I think anyway) Unsplash weren’t doing this for nefarious reasons. It wasn’t a case of “now we’ve made our name being open, we’re gonna start charging for this stuff”. They just wanted to clamp down on this form of abuse which was clearly a problem for them. I expect for most people this is one of those debates that matters only to licence nerds. It did make me ponder several things though. Firstly, the confusion arose because this stuff is tricky. Unsplash said they didn’t want to get bogged down in legalese, but we quickly end up there. Rather like a good sports player, Creative Commons make the difficult stuff look simple. But it’s not, it took really smart people like Cathy Casserly and Larry Lessing to make this complicated, boring legal stuff accessible to the rest of us. We’ve been through several phases of interpretations and implications of the CC licences (remember the CC-NC wars?), and a new licence gets in the weeds quickly. For instance, who decides when the Unsplash licence has been breeched? Is that decision legally enforceable? What happens then? What if I disagree with your decision?

New licences cause confusion, remember the ASTM licences? No, no-one else does either. But on top of this, a proliferation of bespoke licences allows a drift away from openness. Using a CC licence is like outsourcing openness – they’re a trusted body who have it at their heart, so where you see it you don’t have to worry about openwashing or a con-trick (I mean people can do dodgy things no doubt, a CC licence doesn’t stop someone behaving immorally, or abusing rivals on Twitter, say). If you’ve got a myriad different licences we end up having to learn the fine print in each.

But to be fair to Unsplash, what do you do if you have a very specific problem which a broad brush CC0 licence does not address? You don’t want to confuse the CC brand by adding on too many variations. My guess is we’ll see more of these bespoke licences as various forms of openness creep their way into different types of practice. The only thing I would say is go bespoke carefully, there are perils there.

The Indisruptables

Puzzle

I’ve often banged on about the way disruption is an obsession which has gone beyond silicon valley now, and Audrey Watters has written about its status as myth. But I wonder why it persists. This was prompted again today by this piece on MOOCs. The article says that, hey, it turns out MOOC learners are professionals and those at university. So much for the democratisation argument then. But this quote really caught my eye:

“MOOCs may not have disrupted the education market, but they are disrupting the labor market.”

You can almost see them running around the office in panic:
“We haven’t disrupted higher education!”
“Well we’ve got to disrupt something for chrissakes, look at the money we’ve spent.”
“The labour market?”
“Ok, yes, we’re disrupting the shit out of that right now!”

Why is disruption _so_ important to achieve (or because it hardly ever actually occurs, to be said to be achieved?). That quote is telling I feel. It comes down to identity and self validation. Like other persistent myths (learning styles, digital natives), people believe them because it helps their own sense of identity. Our identity is framed by a sense of belonging to certain communities, of ‘we-ness’. Those who cling to disruption despite all evidence to the contrary, do so because they have invested in it personally. It becomes a short hand for a bunch of character traits they want to portray: modern, dynamic, charismatic, revolutionary. If we view it like this then we can see why it is so persistent, since any attack on it is a fundamental attack on a self image they have developed. I guess the only way to combat this is to provide a new self image that is more positive, which people can migrate to. By way of this here are some terms you can try substituting for disruption/disrupting:

  • Undermining labour laws
  • Excusing redundancy
  • Wasting money
  • Reinventing an existing product
  • The learning styles of the tech industry
  • Lacking clear goals
  • Inventing a false history

You’ve probably got some of your own too. But viewing it as an identity issue is probably the way to overcome its rather pernicious influence.

For he’s a very principaled fellow

[Reblogging this from a post I was asked to contribute over on the HEA blog, just because I want to reach my blog total for the year]

“Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that.” This was a thought that occurred to me several times while writing and revising my Principal Fellow application. It was something, if I’m honest, I’d put off doing for a while. But when I finally decided to set aside some time for it at the start of this year, it turned out to be a rewarding process.

As a Professor of Educational technology, I work in a field that has seen considerable change over the past 20 years. I sometimes reflect on this on my blog, but I find myself sounding like the old timer, bemoaning when it was all fields (or in my case, hand coded HTML) around here. So the Fellowship application gave me an opportunity to reflect on the changes in my own career, and as a consequence, that of educational technology as a whole.

In 1999 I chaired the Open University’s first major e-learning course. It may seem obvious now that the internet would have a big impact on education, and distance education in particular, but this was not universally recognised back then. “Nobody wants to learn like that” and “You’ll be lucky to get fifty students on that course” were comments I had while preparing it. Well, we ended up with nearly 15,000 students on it (an early example of the type of massive online course that would become popular with MOOCs in 2012). As a consequence the whole structure of the OU and its strategic direction shifted.

From here I became the OU’s first director of a VLE, and also got active in the area of blogging and digital scholarship. More recently my interest has been in the area of open educational resources, leading the OER Hub research team. What I was struck by in writing my proposal was that one can plot a straight line to fit the various points of your career, and it seems like a smooth, inevitable path. But each step is often a mix of chance, opportunity and local conditions.

It was also a good opportunity to reflect on the projects that hadn’t been the success you might have hoped for. These are part of any career I would guess, but particularly so in educational technology. For instance, I developed the first course for the ill-fated UK e-Universities project. While that project itself wasn’t successful, I learnt much from that which would be relevant later in terms of MOOCs, learning design and learning environments.

The constant nature of seeking new research grants, working on new projects, teaching new courses, supervising new PhD students is one of the aspects that makes working in higher education rewarding. But it also means you rarely get an opportunity to reflect on your own career, and how that reflects changes within your discipline. The HEA Fellowship scheme provides some of that space in a manner that is encouraged and recognised, and so I would recommend taking advantage of that opportunity.

Waiting for the ed tech rapture

hieronymus-bosch-007

This piece by Beth Singler argues that much of the language of Artificial Intelligence has religious connotations. Audrey Watters also writes about myths and faith in Silicon Valley and ed tech. These pieces chimed with some thoughts I’d been having about how ed tech futures are pitched. There are some resonances with religious beliefs regarding cataclysm, and salvation I feel. This is not to criticise anyone’s religious beliefs, I should stress, but rather to offer some insight into the psychology of the ed tech futurists.

Central to many religious beliefs is a tale of the apocalypse, and an essential offer of salvation for believers. The Christian rapture is one example, but it re-occurs in different guises in many doctrines, which indicates that it is a meme that appeals in some deep sense to the human psyche. It’s not hard to see why, two very strong desires that are common to (nearly) all of us are a need to belong (identity theory suggests we define who we are by the groups we associate with) and a desire to feel special. And what stronger sense of belonging and feeling special is there to be one of the saved come the end of world? That’s a very powerful offer.

And much of this is hinted at in ed tech futurist visions. The basic premise is that there is some cataclysmic change coming to society and/or education – robots will displace all workers, AI will make educators redundant, there will only be ten global education providers in the future, everyone will become an autodidact, etc – which is pretty much catastrophic for the current model of education. And then comes the offer – by becoming a believer – in my start up, this particular technology, new labour force model, the latest “Uber for education” metaphor, the singularity – then you, and maybe some of your institution (although, you know, you’ll have to accept casualties) can be saved. But it’s a limited offer – there are only so many souls that can be saved, you have to get on board NOW, and belief has to be total (thou shalt have no other tech platform but mine).

Much of the language of ed tech futurists is couched in catastrophic terms: revolution, tsunami, disruption, fundamental change, broken, etc. So, slightly tongue in cheek, I’ve extended that by looking at the Wikipedia five ‘facts’ for the Rapture and translating them for ed tech:

Those who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not precede those who are dead. Those who have already signed up will have an advantage
The dead in Christ will resurrect first. Having preliminary work underway will help
The living and the resurrected dead will be caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. It’s going to encompass all learning
The rapture will occur during the Parousia. “those who are alive and remain unto the coming (Parousia in greek) of the Lord, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” Insert confluence of factors, such as changing demographics, technology, AI.
The meeting with the lord will be permanent. “And so shall we ever be with the Lord” There’s no going back after this.

I’d like to contrast this ed tech rapture approach with a more pragmatic one. I am a big fan of the Open Science Laboratory at the OU. They do really neat things like the virtual microscope, virtual field trips and live lab demonstrations with interactive elements. All of these really help students, and they’ve done enough research to find what they benefits are, how they can develop them, and what combination with other media works best. They are, in short, useful. No-one pitches ed tech like this as an end of education as we know it. They are focused on students’ needs, have evidence of impact, and are in use now without reference to an imagined future.

If you are at a conference or reading an ed tech article and it begins to feel a bit as if it is over-stretching itself, it’s worth asking if you are being given a ‘rapture’ pitch or a ‘useful’ pitch. I would suggest we’ve had enough of the former and need more of the latter.

PS – after I posted Audrey Watters pointed me to this piece on billionaires buying apocalypse bunkers. So a) this is not me imagining this rhetoric, it must be pretty prominent in their thoughts and b) they’re not even being metaphorical about this apocalypse stuff.

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