What disruptors really want

Fear of the Dark

I had thought we’d seen the back of the whole disruption nonsense. Audrey Watters exposed it as a myth ages ago, I’ve written about how it influenced the whole MOOC narrative, and even Forbes don’t like it. So it was with a weary sigh that I noticed Richard Branson had organised an event called “Disruptors -The Future of Education: Does the Current Model Make the Grade?“. This featured the Khan Academy, Pearson and Teach For All.

I didn’t watch any of the event, maybe there were some very interesting presentations. But by labelling it Disruptors, the intention is made clear. Disruption, as set out by Christensen, is in fact very rare. I think it only actually applies about 1% of the time that term is claimed. But Christensen wouldn’t get rich by talking about a rare occurrence so has pushed the idea that it happens everywhere. The replacement of analogue photography by digital is the classic example. That really was disruption and swept away a whole industry. When it does happen, the thing about disruption is that it is absolutely brutal. A whole industry is replaced by a new one. This is not making improvements (that is the sustaining technology), it is completely destroying a sector and replacing it with a new one. It is an extinction event.

If you are claiming disruption then, you believe the following three things:

  1. A complete, systemic change will overtake the sector
  2. The current incumbents will not survive
  3. The current incumbents are incapable of dealing with the new world, which will be populated by new entrants.

This is what disruption means. If you don’t believe this, then it’s not disruption. It may be technology innovation, it may be new hybrid models, but it’s not disruption. Now look at that list and ask yourself if we want that for education? It would mean the closure of schools, thousands of teachers redundant, and education run by new providers. Maybe it will be a better system, but that is a hell of a lot of, well, disruption.

I’m sure there were a lot of well-meaning people at the Branson event. People who really believe in making change in education that will benefit learners. But ask yourself why Branson is suddenly so interested in it? He is not a passionate supporter of the public sector. And look at that guest list: Pearson, Teach For All. You can bet they want disruption in its absolute sense as they will hope to be the new entrants who reap all that education money. And you can also think this panel has the ear of government (why anyone would listen to Branson on education is a mystery to me).

One of the tricks would-be disruptors like to play is to label anyone who disagrees with them as stuck in the past and resistant to change. “They simply don’t get it” is the refrain. This is where educational technologists have a role to play I think. As a group we are generally the people who have pushed for change, are keen to embrace technology and explore possibilities. Our concerns cannot be as easily dismissed as a refusal to accept change. If they want to work with educators to make things better, that’s great, bringing in ideas from outside the sector is always useful. If they want disruption then remember what their ultimate goal is.

Here was the banner for the Branson event. It is, as David Kernohan highlighted on twitter to me, hilarious. But it is also revealing. Their vision of the future will be shiny and informal (not necessarily bad things). It will also be Branson-centric:


This river’s full of lost sharks

Shark Arena - Nassau, Bahamas
(Remember folks – most sharks are friendly)

I am a Professor of Educational Technology. I work at the Institute of Educational Technology. I run a blog called EdTechie. Let’s face it, I’ve nailed my colours to the educational technology mast. But it’s an odd discipline in many ways, and some argue it’s not really a distinct field at all. Unlike other fields people tend to drift into ed tech from elsewhere. It’s rare that, say someone becomes an academic physicist after having started out as social scientist. These disciplines have an accepted route into them, degree, postgrad, doctorate. But often with ed tech people will start out elsewhere and through accident, curiosity or managerial edict, find themselves engaged in the application of technology to some aspect of education. You’re a Biology lecturer who becomes interested in the use of virtual labs, a classic prof who gets funding for mobile learning, a computer scientist who is interested in learning analytics. And so on. I did my PhD in Artificial Intelligence, and it wasn’t the application of this to education that got me interested, but rather just the possibilities of the then nascent web. I experimented with online tutor groups, web pages, and found myself at e-learning conferences.

This serendipity and multi-disciplinarity is part of what I like about ed tech. You meet people who have very strong creative backgrounds, others with philosophical perspective, and others from computer science tradition. The differences these views bring to the field make it exciting, innovative and challenging. I like that people drift in from elsewhere, like a well positioned pub where walkers, cyclists, locals, shoppers, and arty types all mix happily. But it does mean we don’t have a common cannon of work to refer to. People pick up bits and pieces, some take a course (like our very own Masters), but unlike many academic disciplines, you can’t assume a shared understanding and knowledge.

The downside of this is that sometimes new entrants are uninformed about existing research. Generally I find that people who migrate into ed tech are humble and keen to learn the theory and research that can help inform their own work. You know what’s coming next – this is not the case I find with many MOOC researchers. As I’ve moaned about before, a corollary of the Silicon Valley Narrative that drives MOOCs is the Year Zero mentality. There was no research in online learning prior to MOOCs, because online learning did not really exist prior to MOOCs. This all came to mind with a recent Chronicle piece which declared excitedly “Students Learn More by Doing Than by Watching“. This has been known for so long, in so many forms that I don’t really know where to begin. Yet it is trumpeted as a new breakthrough. I would also suggest that had such a finding came from normal, online courses rather than MOOCs, the Chronicle wouldn’t have covered it.

So this post is basically a big Le Sigh.

PS – title is from The National’s ‘Secret Meeting’:

The VLE isn’t the problem, the sediment is

The Automobile Industry - 1923
(big metaphor for changing institutional systems)

At the ALT C conference I went to a few sessions where VLE discussion came up, most notably Lawrie Phipps and Donna Lanclos’s session “Are learning technologies fit for purpose?“. They asked us to reflect on the main question in groups and nearly all of the discussions came back to complaints about the VLE. Lawrie picked on me to give the first response and I mentioned that the problem was not so much the technology but the “institutional sediment” that builds up around it.

This came back to me in later discussions about whether WordPress would provide a better VLE. I think that actually the differences between technology are quite small. Moodle for example is often described as a constructivist VLE, but I find very little in it that differentiates it from other VLEs. Canvas also has its fans. I’m not being as glib as to say “they’re all the same”, but I think we often over-emphasise the potential of a particular technology to make a change. This isn’t my main point, but before I get on to that, I feel that the social and cultural perception of a technology is as important to how it is implemented as the actual functionality. Put simply, Blackboard is corporate so doesn’t get much love but it does the job, like Windows, say. Moodle is open source, community base so gets solid tech love. WordPress is cool, so is seen as innovative. And so on. There is probably an alternative universe where every university has made WordPress their enterprise system and all the cool kids are clamouring to be allowed to use Blackboard.

Which does get me onto my main point (finally!), about that sediment. Brian Lamb and Jim Groom wrote about their issues with the VLE and while I agree largely with them, I think their focus is too technology oriented. The problem lies in how institutions adopt technology. We spend lots of money on technology, and employing people who become experts in using that technology. But even that is not the real problem, what happens is we develop administrative structures and processes which are couched in terms of the specific technology. We have roadmaps, guidelines, training programmes, reporting structures which all help to embed the chosen tool. This creates a sort of tool focused solutionism – if an academic wants to achieve something in their course, and they ask their IT, or educational support team for help, the answer will be couched in terms of “what is the Blackboard (or tool of your choice) way of implementing this?” Or, worse, “that isn’t in our Moodle roadplan”.

I’m not sure what the solution to this is, it tends to be how large institutions need to operate. But there are ways to combat it I think, for instance frame the processes in terms of the generic function, not the specific technology – what do we want our VLE to do? How do we make effective use of asynchronous communication to enhance student interaction? Can we design the use of tools in course to improve retention? And also think beyond the existing technology, have an ongoing experimentation programme. Most of all, be aware of every institutional action that adds to the sediment, and be conscious that the greater that sediment build up, the more difficult it is wriggle free.

The pseudo digital-natives argument

student_ipad_school - 124

When I did my degree in Psychology I remember a lecturer dismissing lots of theories of cognition as a ‘pseudo-homunculus” explanation. The homunculus explanations of psychology posited a little person sitting inside, driving your actions (think Inside Out). Of course, this was debunked hundreds of years ago, but a pseudo-homunculus explanation was one that went so far and then almost implied a little person. For example, theories of perception that posited a projection of the external world as if it was a cinema screen inside the head. It didn’t explain how that then led to action.

I was thinking about this with ed tech presentations. The digital natives myth has long been debunked, like the homunculus, but what we have are often pseudo-digital native explanations. I joked on twitter that we should ban presenters from talking about their children’s use of technology. I don’t really want to ban it (before people start telling me why a ban would be a bad idea), and I think sometimes it is used to effectively make a point. But often the deployment of these anecdotes (or videos even) is to sneak some pseudo-digital native juice in, without being derided for such. “Look, my daughter uses the ipad in a totally different way to me, we need to be ready for these kids in university” is often the implicit or explicit message. I blogged a while ago that there is something appealing about the digital natives idea, people want it to be true, and so it finds new ways to reassert itself. So when you hear a “my kids” anecdote in a presentation, I just ask you to do a pseudo digital natives check. Stay vigilant people.

Existential angst for a digital scholar

I’m at ALT-C and Jonathan Worth gave a keynote this morning that brought to mind something I’ve been pondering for a while, particularly in relation to some of Audrey Watters writing. Jonathan was talking about the positive experience of Phonar, but then how he had considered the issues around privacy, and consent. He was suggesting that we need to discuss with students all the implications of going online, and also raise their awareness of how much information they are leaking.

As an advocate of digital scholarship I have been having similar anxieties regarding academics. When all this was new I spent much of my time encouraging people to blog, get on twitter, etc. And I still feel that the benefits of establishing an online identity for academic purposes are considerable. Plus it’s also very rewarding, I have developed great friendships, been pushed intellectually, established productive collaborations, and been inspired from my online network. I wouldn’t want to give that up. But increasingly, now that we are past the first flush of enthusiasm and this enters the mainstream, we have to be aware of a ‘dark’ side.

This can be the pressure to build such an identity as it becomes more important; the possibility of getting trolled and being involved in unpleasant (or even downright threatening) online discussions; increased monitoring by institutions through data; loss of control and privacy. And so on.

The reaction to this can still be “don’t go online” but I wouldn’t advocate that, partly because of all the positives I’ve mentioned and also because it becomes increasingly difficult to function. Doing the digital equivalent of hiding in a cave in Utah is not a realistic proposition, and I would argue it is a disservice to new researchers to discourage them from developing online identities.

Which means we have to develop an understanding of all these issues, and ways of dealing with them. And here’s the problem: when I used to encourage people to go online, they would often protest that they don’t have time. If they know need to be experts in privacy then there is even less time. I don’t really have an answer to this, I’m caught between the belief that developing that online identity is key, and feeling that increasingly we shouldn’t engage in that process without a better understanding of what it entails. Hence, my angst of the title.

Anyway, I was reminded of this Mitchell and Webb clip. PS – I don’t think I am one of the baddies, yet.

The ROI on open education


Increasingly in education one is asked to justify the time and resource allocated to projects. I’m not adverse to this, no matter what political belief you subscribe to, everything comes down to allocation of resources in the end, and so considering the best allocation for your intended aim is useful. But this type of justification is often rather crude and determined by simple return on investment. This is easier to do for some aspects of education than others, and I want to make a case for open education.

You can view open education (in whatever form, MOOCs, OERs, podcasts, open access publishing) as a straightforward marketing and recruitment tool. There are established metrics then for determining whether it is effective in that role, compared with other forms, such as radio advertising, say. But unlike advertising, open education plays a wider role in the learning ecosystem (I know using ecosystem is a bit of a cliche now, but let’s roll with it).

Our research from the OER Research Hub, for example, illustrates that a good proportion of informal learners would consider moving into formal education. But not necessarily with the institution who providing the content they used. We also found that a lot of formal learners used OERs to supplement their study or to trial it before signing up. So students at one university may be using content from another to help them in their studies. And informal learners were likely to study with open content again, and recommend it.

What this does is create a society of learners, people who are more actively engaged in learning, both formally and informally. And that will benefit all learning providers (compared with a society of passive TV watchers for example). But the direct, traceable benefit from open education is probably quite small, and specific. For example financial benefits to students with open textbooks is a specific argument you can make for OER, but it is only one type of open education, and the benefits are more pronounced in North America than Europe.

This creates a game theory situation – it might be better for some institutions not to spend on open education themselves, but to benefit from it from others. And when budgets are tight it becomes increasingly difficult to justify expenditure on something that has indirect benefit. And this can lead to the tragedy of the commons, when selfish behaviour dominates to the detriment of all. One way of ameliorating this is to have central policy that mandates for open behaviour, as we have seen with open access publishing. So, for example a national agency may have responsibility for providing infrastructure and ensuring contributions from others. In the UK this has been JISC, but the closure of JORUM may indicate that this role is not seen as significant. The OU also plays a similar role with regards to being an open education champion. Governments might also mandate that a percentage of state supported fees are used to release open content. This becomes more problematic when it is student fees that solely fund higher ed, but a mandate is still possible.

The point is that we often make the case for open education about the benefits to society in general, but there are also very real, actual benefits for HE institutions. It requires a model that allows these to persist however, for them to continue to be felt by everyone.

Robotisation will follow digitisation’s path

robot army

Robots aren’t really my area of expertise, but they’re this year’s thing, in movies and the news. This BBC article “Will machines eventually take on every job?” is fairly typical. However, I have followed the impact of digitisation over the past couple of decades, and I think the implementation of robots will follow a similar path. The difficulty is to tread the path between determinism, utopian and dystopian views, and excessive extrapolation. Also, there is a tendency to forget that pesky human nature in all of this. But we are well down the path of digitisation of a previously analogue world now, and this offers some useful lessons I think. I’m not making any claims that these are positive or negative outcomes, merely offering them as where I think it will go.

Firstly, we see the mass of mundane tasks are taken on. As with digitisation, where renewing car tax, shopping for groceries, and booking holidays were all tasks that people were happy to cede to a new digital version. This was usually quicker, more convenient and had distinct advantages. The same will happen for robots – in fifty years (or if you prefer, 100), it’s hard to imagine that we will still be driving to big supermarkets to trudge around and collect our weekly groceries. This stuff will be picked by robots, and delivered by driverless cars.

Secondly, we learn what we value and create artesan economies. This is where people tend to forget the impact of human nature. iTunes and Spotify may dominate the market for music, there has been a renaissance in the appreciation of vinyl. The coffee shop has flourished, as people buy the mundane stuff online, but decide they want to still exist in social spaces. So it will be with robotisation – your grocery stuff may be delivered by a robot, but you’ll value the expertise of the cheese shop run by an enthusiast down the road.

Thirdly, it’ll be both better and worse than we anticipate. In the early days of the digital revolution there was a lot of hope, and utopian vision around. It turned out to have many downsides (eg loss of privacy) that we didn’t always anticipate. The reverse may be the case with robotisation, the predictions are mainly gloomy (undermining labour, invasion of privacy again, loss of humanity), but there will be unpredicted upsides to it also.

There’s probably lots more, my main point is that we have lived through a very recent technology driven social upheaval, and that provides a good model for considering the next one.

Future direction of the OER Research Hub

IMG_4482 (1)
The OER Hub team prepare for launch

[Reblogged from OER Hub]

July marked the end of the initial phase of the OER Research Hub. It’s been a great three years, and Beck has pulled out some of the highlights. But what next, you are all asking! Well, we’re delighted to announce that we have received further funding form the Hewlett Foundation. The aim of the last grant was twofold: to try and develop an evidence base for many of the beliefs that people held about OER, and to raise the profile of quality research in the OER field. The new project seeks to continue these broad aims, by establishing the hub on an ongoing basis.

Having gathered data and developed tools for OER we also want to broaden our scope to other aspects of open education, including MOOCs, open educational practice, open access, etc. To this end we’re slightly rebranding by dropping an R and calling ourselves The Open Education Research Hub.

So, what’s happening next? Well we’re going to transition to the new Open Education Research Hub with a new website. We’ll also be publishing a series of data reports over this month from the previous research that focus on the different sectors of formal learners, informal learners and educators. If you’re into OER research, these are for you. We’re also running the Open Researcher course from 14th Sept.

The new Hub will become increasingly an umbrella for other projects. We already have a few of these underway, with OER Research Hub staff involved to some extent in the following:

We’re developing bids around other areas also. And of course, if you have any open education related research you’d like to collaborate on, then get in touch.

Corbyn, higher ed & the Overton window

Welcome to Overton!
This post follows on from the previous one regarding our view of higher ed (yes, I’ve been thinking about it over the summer). As those in the UK will know, but overseas readers (hello!) may not, there is currently a leadership election underway for Labour, the opposition party. To everyone’s surprise, and to the chagrin of most of the senior Labour figures, it looks as though the left-wing candidate Jeremy Corbyn will win. This isn’t a post about Labour, or politics really, but about what the more general value of someone like Corbyn is in the current climate (and possibly why that has proven popular).

There is a political concept known as the Overton Window, which is defined as the range of ideas the public will accept. If an idea falls outside of the Overton window it is rejected. However, as Owen Jones argues in his book The Establishment, there are people, and groups, whose function is to effectively shift the Overton Window. It has been moving steadily right since the 1970s, so that ideas that even Margaret Thatcher thought were too radical, are now seen as standard practice. Ideas, such as privatising the NHS, would once have been political suicide, but aspects of them can now be discussed. For me then, Corbyn’s role is to help drag the Overton Window back to a more central position. For example, if a privatised part of the prison service performs badly, the media will focus on discussing whether that company is doing a good job, providing value for money, etc. But they will not question whether selling of services such as this is a good idea in the first place. That falls outside of the Overton Window currently. Corbyn’s presence makes that question a viable one to ask, and thus helps shift the window back. I’m not saying this will make him a successful leader, my point is rather that what is interesting here is the control of narrative.

And this shaping of narrative is something I’m interested in with regards to educational technology and higher education in general. I touched upon the importance of narrative regarding MOOCs in the Battle for Open. It is evident also in the “university degree as personal investment” narrative that has come to dominate higher education. In my last post I talked about the value of viewing higher education as a process and not just a product. The reason it is difficult to do so, is because a process view falls outside of our own Overton Window in higher education.

And just as I value Corbyn’s presence for helping shift the narrative ground in UK politics, so I regard many of the bloggers whose work I admire (Audrey Watters, Kate Bowles, Jonathan Rees, Richard Hall) as performing a similar service – they help shift the higher education window (or at least help resist it being dragged in a certain direction).

Product and process in higher ed

Science Fiction by Gaslight (1968 HB)

When I was a young man I harboured dreams of being a novelist (instead I became the next best thing, an ed tech blogger). Recently by way of entertaining myself I have taken to writing fiction again. But I do so without any intention of ever publishing, sharing or doing anything with it. This was quite a liberating decision, it means I can just enjoy the process. And this set me thinking about tasks we do for the joy of the process itself, and those we do for the end result, the product.

Fiction writing is quite odd in this respect, and different from many other leisure pursuits. If you tell someone you are writing fiction, they will often ask (or assume) that you intend to get published. That you harbour dreams of doing a JK Rowling (and this is indeed true of many people who take up writing). In that respect it seems a pursuit that tends more (although not exclusively) towards the product side. Contrast it with other past-times people may take up, such as painting, or pottery. One would probably not ask of someone who is doing an evening class in painting “are you planning on holding an exhibition?” the way you might ask a writer “are you going to publish?”. It is understood that painting is something most people do for the joy of the process itself.

Exercise or sport is also similar in this respect. While people may have a product, a goal, in mind such as entering a race, or losing weight, exercise is usually undertaken for engagement in the process. You do not assume that your friend who has started running is planning on becoming a professional athlete.

And this brought me round to thinking about how we view higher education. It used to be firmly in the process camp. People went to university because the act of learning, critical thinking, engagement with peers and time away from the pressures of career were seen as valuable in themselves. There were undoubtedly vocational degrees which were more product centred – you did an accountancy degree usually because you wanted to become an accountant – but largely it was the process that mattered. Over the past twenty years we have seen a shift where the dominant rhetoric and mindset around higher education is one of product. When I did a degree in Psychology I would be asked by people of the older generation who hadn’t been to uni “what job are you going to do with that?”. They didn’t mean it unkindly, it was just that they had a more pragmatic mindset. But it was understood by most that in some ways the degree subject didn’t really matter. I was the first generation at uni and that was significant.

But the “what job are you going to do with that?” question now dominates, and is even the one students often have uppermost in their minds. I hesitate to use the term neo-liberal but I think this change in mindset did coincide with the rise of the neo-liberal dominance during the 00s. And it has become solidified with the introduction of high student fees. Fees make the conversation all about product. And a product focus is not necessarily wrong, I’m glad a surgeon had one, for example. But I’m pleased that some countries have resisted this product centric view of higher ed, and still understand that, like painting, and for me, fiction writing, there is value in the process that shouldn’t be underestimated.

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