A system of exclusion

Come in!

This isn’t another HE Green Paper analysis piece (see WonkHE or David Kernohan for some excellent ones), but that has been the tipping point to write this post which has bugged me for a while.

Politicians and commentators often talk about wanting to expand higher education. This is sometimes couched in terms of social mobility (although Vik Loveday makes a good case that mobility implies ‘escaping’ working class and should be avoided as a term), sometimes because education is seen as a social benefit, and sometimes in terms of neo-liberal productive economy. But generally, people think it’s a good idea to try and get more people, and particularly more people from currently under-represented groups, into higher education.

But contrary to this many of the same people are actively constructing a system that works against such an inclusive approach to higher education. I worked on a European project called Changing Pedagogic Landscape recently, which examined the impact of quality assurance, curriculum and funding on innovation in higher ed in Europe. One of the messages that came out from that was how the context universities work in often run counter to the rhetoric for innovation or inclusion.

The Green paper also demonstrates this schism, asking for an expansion in student numbers, and then setting in place measures that will punish those who try to realise this. The problem is that the current higher education system operates on a presumption of exclusion. You keep out those who won’t pass, and cherish those who you think will. The characteristics of a system of exclusion in HE are:

  • An almost complete focus on the ‘traditional’ student” 18-22 years old, studying full time, on campus, away from home. The Green paper suffers from this so much that it is embarrassing. Part-time, distance, mature students – these hardly get a mention.
  • Metrics that focus on retention – many of the newer groups you want to reach may not complete a full degree. That may be because only studying one or two modules is what they want to do, and realises their aim. Or it may be that you have a higher drop out rate from these groups. The TEF/Green paper is going to make course completion one of the factors that indicates quality. This will actively deter universities from bringing in students who have a lower chance of completion.
  • Inflexible funding models – funding is related to completion, and does not differentiate for different types of study
  • Prohibitive costs – if entering higher education means taking on debts of £20-£50K then the people this has a disproportionately negative impact on the groups you might want to include, since they have less familiarity with higher education, are more debt sensitive and less sure they will complete.

What this creates is a system that encourages exclusion – if we really want a more inclusive higher education system then governments have to address all of these characteristics, otherwise it remains empty rhetoric.

Battle for open – latest skirmishes

Pathe News Trade advert 1955
(you should read this post in 1940s BBC voice)

I did a post a while back on some of the frontline reporting from the battle for open (I am being slightly tongue in cheek with this militaristic language), so thought I’d give another quick account.

First, some good news. The US Dept of Education continues to engage with OER, and announced “the launch of its #GoOpen campaign to encourage states, school districts and educators to use Open Educational Resources (OER).” This is great news for several reasons – it reduces costs, allows diversity of resources, and if the ‘open virus’ theory has any weight (okay, it’s just me who proposes it) it exposes educators to the idea of openly licensed material.

What it also demonstrates though is that this stuff takes hard work. People such as Cable Green, David Wiley, Nicole Allen and Hal Plotkin have campaigned for this stuff. They also know how to work with the political lobbying system. I don’t think we have that kind of backing from institutions like Hewlett and Creative Commons, nor the lobbying sophistication in the UK. If you want to enter the mainstream with open education, the lesson from the US seems to be that you have to learn how to work within the political system.

And now the bad, or rather, increasingly bizarre news. Firstly, the Renaissance Society of America reported that it’s subscription to the Early English Books Online database had been cancelled by ProQuest, because (now, get this) their “members make such heavy use of the subscription, this is reducing ProQuest’s potential revenue from library-based subscriptions”. Yes, they were using the subscription too much.

Next up, in the increasingly Kafkaesque battle between academic publishers and the rest of the world, there was the report that an individual heard they had been quoted in an article. Their library did not subscribe to that journal, and so they asked a friend (who did subscribe) to send them a copy. When they queried the article about how they had been quoted, the publisher’s immediate response was not, ‘oh we’ll sort that out’, but rather ‘how did you get access to the article’. They took them to court, where a judge ordered punitive damages in excess of what the publishers had asked for. Presumably to give a lesson about trying to access knowledge.

What both of these incidents show is that the original purpose of academic publishing has now long been lost. In both instances the immediate response was not about working in the best interest of the community, but in getting extra profit. The notion that it is a collaborative undertaking now between many publishers and academics doesn’t stand up.

Lessons from the MOOC investment gold rush


Now that we’ve had a few years of investment in MOOCs we can reflect on what this period tells us. I’m not talking about the value of MOOCs themselves, their pedagogy, or technology, but rather what this unprecedented amount of investment from universities and venture capitalists reveals. Rather unsurprisingly, people are now questioning the sustainability of this investment, and whether, you know, it was worth it. So here are my lessons from the MOOC investment bubble for anyone wanting to recreate it for any new venture.

  • There is money around – MOOCs came just after the economic crisis, and yet when it was required, huge investments in actual cash, people, technology and support were found for MOOCs.
  • Don’t go cheap – they won’t respect you. Rather than demonstrating how cheaply you can get away with doing something, it seems the scale of ambition and investment in MOOCs was what appealed to university presidents.
  • Don’t underestimate fear as a factor – although it was couched in social good, student recruitment, innovating pedagogy, etc I would suggest that the single biggest motivating factor for investing in MOOCs was fear – fear of being left behind, fear of looking old fashioned, fear that the hyped revolution may actually happen.
  • Big rhetoric wins – allied with the fear factor was a strong rhetoric around democratising education, disruption (yawn), and revolution. This won out over research, or nuanced accounts.
  • Technology inspires awe – I think many senior people in universities were rather like eager puppies when the sexy technology boys came calling. Some of the contracts signed with these companies for handing over content, rights and labour would never have been agreed without this general sense that the ‘future has come knocking’

That’s, erm, quite a cynical list isn’t it? I still maintain that MOOCs are interesting, but we should have explored them more on our own terms before joining in the gold rush. I hope there is some sober reflection now on the investment that has gone into them.

The innovation game in higher ed

0233 - Domo Lightbulb

It is a frequent cry from politicians, vice chancellors, industry leaders and educators that they want to see innovation in higher ed. I mean, who is against innovation? But the rhetoric for the need for innovation is rarely backed up by practice that will encourage it. Innovation doesn’t just arise from nowhere, and what we increasingly have in higher ed is a context of conflicting narratives. These are the demand for (or reprimand for the lack of) innovation on one side and the efficiency, accountability narrative on the other.

I was reminded of this conflict again today when reading an article(via Laura Pasquini) which reports in a study which they constructed a network from biomedical and chemistry publications. They mapped knowledge that was innovative, ie added new connections to the network and those which built on prior knowledge. They found that “while researchers who pursue riskier academic work may not be published as frequently, if published, their work receives more citations.”

The conclusion they draw is that the push to publish for the sake of fulfilling metrics, as promoted by the REF, and most tenure track processes, actively works against innovation. I haven’t studied their paper, so maybe those conclusions aren’t valid, but if so, it marks a peculiar triumph of the measurement approach. The very reason we developed academic publishing in the first place (to share knowledge and encourage innovation) now acts against innovation occurring.

This is an example of the conflicting narrative we encounter in higher ed. While innovation has never been more highly valued, the context within which it occurs has never been so focused on efficiency and control. It is difficult to allow innovation to flourish if other parts of the system are rewarded for tight control (think of what you may want to explore with IT services versus how they are being measured in terms of performance, or if the route to promotion discourages failure. You can have a culture that foregrounds innovation or one that foregrounds efficiency. You can’t have both. And that’s fine, maybe we should focus on efficiency. But if we do so, it’s then a bit off to be derided by industry leaders for a lack of innovation. Innovation generally requires people to be given some freedom, and a lack of monitoring. And which leaders are brave enough to give up monitoring?

It isn’t always about money, incentives aren’t that effective as motivators for innovation. However, when there are two narratives in competition then the one which relates most directly to job security, or money, becomes a deciding factor. And that tends to favour the efficiency narrative. So you can’t blame academics for focusing on this, at the expense of innovation. It’s what all the context markers are telling them to do.

Half awake in our fake empire

I was at the ICDE conference last week, and there was a very interesting set of keynotes. Paul Prinsloo had deliberately chosen speakers to offer something of a counter-narrative to the “wow! ed tech!” type talks we often get. So for example, we had Audrey Watters on the Californian ideology that underpins much of ed tech, Laura Czerniewicz on the paradoxes and potential of open ed, Tressie McMillan Cottom on the access paradox and Joyce Seitzinger on the use of design approaches as a possible way of addressing some of the issues we’ve found with online learning. Watching these four excellent keynotes in particular made once again reflect on the nature of the educational technology field.

I blogged a couple of posts back about how ed tech is a rather strange discipline that people seem to wander into. I used a National lyric for that post so have set myself the challenge of only using lyrics from the National when blogging about this topic. And, no, I don’t care how tortuous or strained that gets.

I think most people who I spoke with welcomed the intelligent critique present in talks such as these. But I was aware of how rare they were as the type of keynote we get at ed tech conferences. All speakers stressed that they weren’t anti-technology, that they used it and encouraged its use in education, but that here were some issues for us to explore. Too often in ed tech we have uncritical talks, or occasionally someone brought in to be the contrarian. Neither of these approaches is helpful. I think there is a fear that if we offer up any criticism, then it will be seized upon by the doubters, naysayers, etc and used as an excuse – “see, I told you there was nothing in this internet thing. Back to the dusty tomes people!”

I confess, I think back in the early elearning days, when I was trying to convince people that there might be something in this internet thing for educators, that was my feeling. I wanted to emphasise positives and ignore negatives. But I feel it is a sign of maturity in the field that we can now have these discussions. Imagine a sociology, or art history conference that wasn’t interested in critiquing the field itself. No, you can’t. That’s how the field evolves.

As I joked to one of the keynotes the problem is you’ll never get rich offering this nuanced, thoughtful position. There is something about throwing technology in the mix that demands people set aside critical faculty. If you want the big keynotes, the money slot on TV or the big book deals then you’d better be coming with a dystopian or utopian vision. Preferably based on sweeping generalisations from your own personal experience. That’s what sells here.

So, this is just a long plea for other speakers, and conferences, to take a leaf out of the ICDE book and start to have thoughtful, research based analysis of ed tech itself as a discipline. And, oh, look, a National song:

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.

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