25 years of EdTech – 1997: Constructivism


In 1997 web based learning was getting a lot of traction, and with it people began to look around for new models of teaching. So for 1997 I’m not focusing on a technology, but rather an educational theory because there’s education in educational technology after all.

Constructivism was by no means new, dating back to Piaget, Vygostky and Bruner. The principal concept of constructivism is that learners construct their own knowledge, based on their experience and relationship with concepts. It’s a (sometimes vague) learning theory rather than a specific pedagogy, so how it is implemented varies. It was often put into practice by active learning, or discovery based approaches. The appeal of this for online learning was the sense that the web gave agency to learners. They could create, collaborate, discover for themselves, freed from the conventions of time and distance. When people can learn anywhere and anytime then the pedagogy designed for a lecture hall seemed limiting.

Just about every conference paper at the time opened with a piece on ‘student centred’ learning, and their constructivist approach. In reality this often equated to little more than ‘we gave them a forum’. And sometimes it could be an excuse for poor design, a reason for the educator to absent themselves from creating content because, hey, everyone had to construct their own interpretation. It also doesn’t work well for a lot of disciplines, quantum physics for example is almost entirely theoretical (and bloody bizarre), so bringing your own experience of quarks isn’t going to help. There was also a sense of snobbery about it, constructivism was the new kid, and all your old fashioned instructivist approaches are plain wrong.

But, even with these reservations, constructivism was significant because it showed educators engaging with technology in a meaningful, conceptual manner. It wasn’t about just the tech, but rather the possibilities it opened up for new pedagogy. It also marked the first time many educators engaged with educational theory – this was true for me certainly, I had come from an AI background, and although I had done psychology and knew my Piaget from my Bandura, these hadn’t really applied to adult education. It took technology to cause that reflection on practice. As the OER Hub found with the use of OER, this reflection on practice by educators is often one of the main, but unspoken, benefits of a new tech.

Why does education hate itself?

Idiot starts with a J :)

Here’s a news story that doesn’t happen: A bank has appointed a former university Vice Chancellor as their new CEO, because they feel the expertise in running an institution with longevity and stability is what’s required.

Ludicrous, right? And yet, the opposite occurs regularly. Higher education has an inferiority complex. It always feels like it needs to change, to be more like something else, to take radical lessons from elsewhere. But here’s the thing – education is not like newspapers, music, content industry, banking, software development or selling cars. It’s fucking odd, and unique. I mean, there are definitely things to be learnt from other sectors, just as every sector can learn from outside its domain. But books and music are more similar than education and entertainment, say, and even they are very different.

The point is, education has a lot to learn about operating in a digital age. But it seems to ignore learning from its own past (see my previous whinges about forgetting open education’s past), and prioritise what is perceived as more valuable, relevant knowledge from elsewhere. What this does is send a message that we in education don’t value it highly. Expertise in education can be picked up in a few weeks, it’s not like it’s important. The culture of higher ed is posited as a problem that needs to be fixed rather than something that has value. Guess what? I’m fed up with it. Here’s my new consultancy business pitch for higher ed: Education is different from other sectors. Education should trust itself.

25 years of EdTech – 1996: CMC

I’m revisiting the previous post on Bulletin Board Systems slightly here. One of the interesting things about this series is the way others are bringing great stuff to my attention. For instance, David Kernohan has covered much of this in better detail than I can (sometimes I hate that guy with all his knowledge stuff).

The reason I’m revisiting Bulletin Board Systems with the concept of Computer Mediated Communication is that it’s a good example of how a technology develops into a more generic educational approach. CMC became a popular phrase around this time and represents higher ed really beginning to engage with online tools in a theoretical, conceptual manner, comparable to the way they had with early developments in open education. CMC was, as David notes, particularly driven by a shift from text based systems to graphical interfaces. When I joined the OU we were using the FirstClass system. It allowed us to automatically allocate students to groups, set up groups with different permissions, sync offline, thread and structure conversations and allow a high degree of personalisation to users.

Such systems were forerunners to VLEs, both technically and socially. CMC systems made ease of use simple enough that the pedagogic benefits could be realised. This is again a recurrent ed tech theme – when the barriers to use of a particular tech become low enough (and in the case of smart phones, say, almost invisible), that its use can be generalised. From CMC we got online tutor groups, e-moderation, forums, conferences, and so on. For a long time these were the issues that concerned ed tech academics. It was online tutor groups for the OU that was particularly relevant. There were a number of courses that experimented with this before I got there. I tried implementing one on an existing course, which was an indication the software was becoming easy enough to use to expand to broader application, and that there was an appetite from some students for an all online experience. Gradually the viability of it as an approach gained credibility until it would be the norm (some 15 or so years later – we don’t like to rush these things).

If the benefit of the web was the removal of barriers to broadcast and publishing, then what CMC delivered was the ability to collaborate at a distance. This is arguably more powerful in education than the democratisation of broadcast, but it gets to the heart of different views about education. The use of the web to disseminate info cheaply (see also MOOCs) is the infinite lecture hall model. The use of the net to facilitate collaboration and discussion in groups at a distance speaks to a more student focused, less industrial model. In this we see another common theme – technology brings underlying beliefs regarding education into focus, and then gives them steroids.

Social media and the academic (through the medium of dog pictures)

Photo by Don Agnello on Unsplash

I’m giving a presentation to OU staff on the use of social media. This was part of a broader social media training day, and they were interested in the potential impact of using social media. I chose to present it as a series of hypotheses. For many of these there is some evidence, but for a lot it is either very indirect, or we haven’t really gathered it yet. And just for the sake of it, I limited myself to only using pictures of dogs in the slidedeck. Because dogs.

The hypotheses (some are more just statements if I’m honest), were as follows:

  • Soc Med increases student recruitment
  • Soc Med increases student engagement
  • Soc Med increases student retention
  • Online identity is vital part of graduateness
  • We have a duty to develop expertise in fake news, etc
  • Soc med helps lead development of new pedagogy
  • Soc Med increases research impact
  • Soc Med reaches different audiences for your research
  • Soc Med is a valuable research tool/method
  • Soc Med is complementary to traditional scholarship
  • Soc Med gives new opportunities for ECRs
  • Online profile leads to collaboration
  • Soc Med is (relatively) cheap
  • Soc Med is fun?

I do then have a section on the dangers and downsides, lest the above seem a bit cheerleady. Framing it as hypotheses is a potentially useful way to approach for it academics. They can select from these which is most relevant for them and view their use almost as action research.

My presentation with all the dog pics you could want, is here:

25 years of EdTech – 1995: the Web

Before someone jumps in and says “actually the web was invented in 1989”, this series isn’t about when they were invented, but when I feel they became relevant in ed tech. So don’t be that guy. It’s now 1995, in my personal history this is the year I joined the Open University. At the interview I said “so have you thought about using the web to deliver courses?” I think they interpreted this as me knowing more about it than I did, but hey, I got the job. The web browser was becoming reasonably common now, with Netscape (*sniff*) dominating.

I won’t go all nostalgic about the early promise of the web, at this stage it was still techie and awkward to use. People regularly made proclamations that no-one would shop online, or that it was the equivalent of CB radio. Even at the time these seemed ridiculous, even if we couldn’t predict smart phones and ubiquitous wifi, being able to dial up and connect to information sources anywhere was always going to be revolutionary. And particularly for education. What the web browser provided (although it would take a few years to materialise) was a common tool so that specific software wasn’t required for every function. In this the browser was like HTML that underpinned it – it wasn’t as good as bespoke versions for any specific function but its generality made it good enough. I had this argument repeatedly with tech people at the OU, who would always point out the superior functionality of their favoured software tool. Good enough always wins out in popularity if you can make it universal (Facebook is another example of this).

Learning HTML was always going to be a barrier and web publishing tools such as FrontPage came along, before we all switched to Facebook pages or WordPress sites. But I recall the magic of running OU summer schools (which, ironically I and the web would help make redundant) where we taught people HTML, and got them to publish a page online. The realisation that anyone in the world could now see their page was a revelation. In this are the important aspects of what the web gave education – the freedom to publish, communicate and share. For distance education which had previously relied on expensive broadcast (the much loved OU BBC programmes for instance) or shipping physical copies of books, video and CDs, this was a game changer. It not only altered how single function institutions such as the OU operated, but it significantly lowered the cost of entry into the distance education market, so suddenly all other universities could now become distance ed providers. Of all the technologies I will look at in this series, the web is the one we are still feeling the impact of most keenly.

Now, excuse me, I’m off to listen to some modem dial up noises:

25 Years of EdTech – 1994: Bulletin Board Systems

Continuing my 25 years of Ed Tech reflections, it’s now 1994. The web is just about to break in a big way, and the internet is gaining more interest. One of the technologies that old ed tech hacks like me go all misty eyed over is the Bulletin Board System. These were popular for the nascent discussion forums online, and mark the first real awareness of education to the possibility of the internet. They often required specialist software at this stage, were text based and because we were all using expensive dial-up, the ability to synch offline was important.

At the OU (I was yet to join) they were experimenting with a couple of systems. While people such as Robin Mason could see their potential, they were still viewed as a very niche application. At the time the university needed to help people with the whole getting online process, dealing with unfamiliar software and advice on how to communicate online. That is a lot of academic real estate to use up in a course about, Shakespeare, say. So their application was reserved for subjects where the medium was the message. For distance education though the possibilities were revolutionary – they had the potential to remove the distance element. The only way students communicated with each other previously was at summer school and face to face tutorials. If we want to talk about the OU becoming a university of the cloud, then this is where it started.

The lessons from BBS are that some technologies have very specific applications, some die out, and others morph to a universal application. BBS did the latter, but in 1994, most people thought they would be in one of the first two categories. What was required for them to become a mainstream part of the educational technology landscape was the technical and social infrastructure that removed the high technical barrier to implementation. More of that in later posts.

[UPDATE – Will Woods reminded me that the early OU BBS was called CoSy]

The Digital Scholar – ebook file

I’ve been doing some writing on revisiting my 2011 book The Digital Scholar. I’ve also got a couple of presentations planned around it. But on checking I note that the imprint of Bloomsbury that published it, Bloomsbury Academic, is no longer functioning and the titles have been rolled into the main Bloomsbury catalogue. My previous links to the free version don’t work any more, and you have to dig pretty hard to find the free version on their site. I think open access publishing was something they experimented with when Frances Pinter was there, but now she has moved on to Knowledge Unlatched, they’ve quietly abandoned it.

Of course, the benefit of open access is that the destiny of my book is in my own hands, and needn’t die when a publisher changes tack. I own it. It’s strange that this is not the norm, I know. So, this post is really just a means of archiving my own book (on my own domain) for future reference. And of course, a reminder to read it if you haven’t done so.

Here it is then (only PDF & epub I’m afraid):
The Digital Scholar PDF

Digital Scholar Epub

25 years of edtech – 1993: Artificial Intelligence


This year marks the 25th anniversary of ALT. I’m co-chairing the ALT-C conference with Sheila MacNeill, which celebrates this in September. This got me thinking about the changes I’d seen in that time, and so I’m going to attempt a series of blog posts that use this as a vehicle to explore the developments in ed tech over the past 25 years. It may end up like Sufjan Stevens project to write an album for every state, and I won’t get past two or three, but let’s give it a go. Also, in order to fit it in, there may be some twisting to fit a tech into a year, and it’s not necessarily the year the technology was invented but rather when I came to recognise it. So, with those caveats, let’s set off. It’s 1993, I’m a PhD student in Middlesbrough, it’s just before Nirvana and Oasis break, the Stone Roses and Madchester have peaked… (screen goes wavy)

I’m starting with Artificial Intelligence. This is partly because in 1993 I was studying a PhD in AI applied to aluminium die casting (I know you want to read my thesis). But it’s also partly to demonstrate the cyclical nature of ed tech. In 1993 AI was going through its second flush of popularity, following on from initial enthusiasm in the eighties. The focus was largely on two approaches: expert systems and neural networks. These were contrasting approaches: expert systems tried to explicitly capture expertise in the form of rules, whereas neural networks learnt from inputs in a manner analogous to the brain. The initial enthusiasm for Intelligent Tutoring Systems had waned somewhat by 93. This was mainly because they really only worked for very limited, tightly specified domains. You needed to predict the types of errors people would make in order to provide advice on how to rectify it. And in many subjects (the humanities in particular), in turns out people are very creative in the errors they make, and more significantly, what constitutes the right answer is less well defined.

Expert systems though were pushed as teaching aids also – if you captured the knowledge of an expert, in say, medical diagnosis, then this forms a useful teaching aid. My experience in developing an expert system to diagnose problems in aluminium die casting is probably symptomatic of the field: it sort of did the job, but didn’t really catch on. The problem was twofold: the much quoted ‘knowledge elicitation bottleneck’ and the complexity of real world. The first meant getting the knowledge from experts in a format you can use. Apparently you can’t just drill a hole in their heads and tap it out like siphoning petrol from a car. Experts don’t always agree, and making expertise explicit is notoriously difficult. What characterises an expert is that they ‘just know’. The complexity issue means you can’t predict the way things work out. For example, we characterised typical flaws (and provided a very nice database of images). But sometimes these co-occur, sometimes they look different, sometimes the causes can be multiple.

AI faded after this for a while, only to resurface with a vengeance in the past five years or so. I may revisit it later, so I won’t say much about the current instantiation. What is interesting I think is that the claims are much the same (although they often think they have invented them for the first time), and some of the problems remain. However, what has really changed is the power of computation. This helps address some of the complexity because multiple possibilities and probabilities can be accommodated. In this we see a recurring theme in ed tech: nothing changes while simultaneously everything changes. AI has definitely improved since 93, but equally some of the fundamental issues that beleaguered it still remain.

Edtech & Symbols of Permanence

Castell Coch 2

I understand why tech companies like education, but I don’t understand why they like it so much. Obviously, there’s money, the global education market is estimated at $4.4 trillion. Get a big chunk of that market and you can buy a football team. And there’s the perception that it’s slow and ripe for change, which appeals to both investors and egos of developers. These are both undoubtedly significant factors. But I’ve come to suspect there’s something else in the psychological mix – a form of legitimacy and permanence. I’m going to try to explain this by way of a long winded detour into the history of my local castle. But it comes together, so bear with me.

Castell Coch – a brief history

Castell Coch (Welsh for Red Castle) is situated above the village of Tongwynlais, on the outskirts of Cardiff. The ruins of an earlier 11th century castle and the surrounding land were acquired in 1760, by John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute. His great-grandson, John Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquis of Bute, inherited the castle in 1848. The landed estates, and particularly ownership of the Cardiff docks which had become the busiest coal exporting dock in the world, made him one of the wealthiest men in the world. A keen medievalist, he employed the architect of High Victorian style, William Burges to reconstruct the castle, as a summer hunting retreat.

In collaboration with the Marquis, Burges developed a design in the style of medieval, fairy tale castles. The exterior was constructed from 1875 to 1879. Despite its intended aim as a hunting lodge, the castle was not used often, and is largely viewed as part of the Victorian fashion for follies.

This can be considered as a belated example of what Peter Borsay termed the The English Urban Renaissance. After 1700 Borsay argues that many English towns underwent a renaissance period, characterised by uniform design, street planning, a growing middle-class population and increased leisure facilities such as assembly halls, public gardens and theatres.

A number of conditions then arose to see a shift from towns being less focused on their rural position, and instead on their own services. Borsay provides the role of leisure as an example of such a shift in identity and function. The urban renaissance was largely unseen in Wales however, which lacked major industry prior to the nineteenth century. Towns such as Brecon acted as agricultural market towns. The geography made transport difficult between many Welsh settlements, which further limited their trade.

However, the features Borsay sets out as being characteristic of a 17th Century urban renaissance can be seen in nineteenth century Cardiff, accompanied by population growth. Allied with this population growth are many of the public amenities Borsay cites as characteristic of an urban renaissance, for instance a Gas Act in 1837 for public lighting, a waterworks act in 1850, as well as signs of leisure such as a racecourse in 1855. This is contrasted with the experience of the poor in Cardiff, which after the Poor Law of 1834, developed a workhouse in 1836. This soon proved inadequate for the expanding population, and a new workhouse was constructed in 1881.

Castell Coch 4

Castell Coch as representation of power

This provides a context within which Castell Coch was constructed, and how it could be interpreted by the local population. This was a time of great social upheaval – the trade union movement was a significant force in South Wales and the Rebecca Riots of 1839-1844 in West Wales had demonstrated that social unrest could flare up violently. The political activism of the Chartists in the South Wales coal fields similarly highlighted that the feudal order was in decline. These social upheavals caused great anxiety amongst the elite, with the Railway merchants proclaiming that ‘the late Chartist and Rebecca riots sufficiently evince that Wales will become in as bad a state as Ireland, unless the means of improvement are given to it’.

In this context then the Castell becomes not simply an indulgence of an interest in medievalism, but a deliberate attempt to lay claim to the historical immutability of the position of the aristocracy. This is further reinforced by the siting of Castell Coch on an existing ruin. The original site dates back to the Normans, and was rebuilt in 1277 to control the Welsh. As Wales faced another rebellion the reconstruction of Castell Coch can be interpreted as a signal on the longevity of power. The decision by Burges to incorporate elements of the earlier castle, particularly noticeable in the cellar reinforces this connection with past representations of power.

Although the Marquis could point to several generations of wealth, they were not part of the landed gentry dating back to Napoleonic times. In South Wales, Philip Jenkins argues that there was a shift in the gentry from ancient landed families to a new landed elite from approximately 1760. These new families sough to establish an ‘ancient gentry’:

For the new ruling class, newness was politically damaging, while antiquity could be a considerable asset. If they could only assert their historical roots they could claim to be part of a natural and immemorial rural order.

In this context, the faux romantic style can be interpreted as an extension of power. By evoking romantic notions of medieval ages, and building on the site of a Norman century castle, the message of Castell is one of the permanence of power. The immutability of the aristocracy is presented as both reassuring and unquestionable. Tom Williamson highlights this use of consciously manipulating ‘symbols of the past’, in order to hide a very modern use of land ownership rights. For example Susie West highlights how landscape landscapes gardens are ‘spaces deliberately removed from production’ and are now presented as aesthetic objects. Castell Coch can similarly be viewed as an artistic creation, removed from the original function, in this case military defence, of the original.

Castle Coch

The ed tech equivalent

If we view the digital revolution as a similar social force as the industrial revolution, then it creates challenges to established power. What the new powers then seek to do is ally themselves with symbols of longevity. In the physical world this is castles and manor houses. In the digital world, it is education and governance. Education is often decried for being slow to change, and stuck in the past, but whether they realise it or not, these are the values tech companies seek to appropriate. Education is a recognised universal good (generally). It has longevity, history, social value. Those, as much as the millions of users with dollars, are assets that tech companies seek to acquire, because as with Castell Coch, what they do is strengthen your position. The message of Castell Coch was that physically and literally it was unassailable – which meant that metaphorically so was the position of those who owned it. It rendered legitimacy to their new found wealth, the crucial function of which is to remove questions. This is precisely what being deeply involved in education does for tech firms. We don’t question their algorithms, their ethics, their control because, look, we’re educating 20 million people in developing nations with our platform.

Of course, that doesn’t mean higher ed should eschew technology – far from it, we have a duty to ensure learners get the most from technology and to use it to teach in new ways and reach new audiences. But it shouldn’t sell itself cheap. They want something from education, its ‘symbols of the past’, so stop treating them as saviours.

(And if you want to come and see Castell Coch, give me a shout).

Diving for pearls

Mercury Close-up: Hovnatanian Crater (NASA, MESSENGER, 01/16/12)

For the upcoming REF, the OER Hub are one of the possible impact case studies for the OU. We applied for a small bit of internal funding, and last week all decamped to a cottage in Gloucestershire for five days to put in an intensive writing session. This is not a commentary on the REF, an analysis of the neoliberalisation of education or the dangers of metrics, just some reflections on that writing process (so lower your expectations).

Firstly, a dedicated (isolated) week is definitely the way to go. We had been provided with a set of documents to complete by our excellent REF advisor, Jane Seale. But without a dedicated, prolonged period to devote to these, it would have taken months to complete. Also, the intensity of focusing on only this, rather than fitting in amongst other pressing demands, meant that the quality of what we produced was greatly improved (I think). So, a week away may seem like an indulgence, but was probably more productive and efficient in the long run.

Secondly, impact in higher education research is difficult, and often indirect. The dream type of impact is you do research, it leads to a change in Government policy on health or schooling. But that’s actually quite rare. In the last REF they didn’t allow impact within higher education to count, which is especially problematic for us, as part of our aim has been to work with researchers elsewhere and build OER research capacity. This time they may be a bit more lenient, but impact on other researchers is still frowned upon.

Thirdly, we’re all collaborative and supportive in the OER community (yes we are). Claiming impact sometimes seems like you need to ego and lack of shame of Donald Trump. We were solely responsible for everything that has happened and invented it all! This rather grates with the collegial, sharing network we are part of. So there is a tension in the process between needing to promote yourself and claim impact while also wanting to acknowledge the diverse, distributed nature of influence.

Lastly, we wanted to stress how the process by which we have conducted research, namely making openness (through social media, open access publications, open data, our open researchers pack, open courses, etc) is as impactful as the research itself. I feel that we made a good stab at this, but I wonder how much it will mean to assessors who are from a ‘traditional’ approach.

We’re writing this up now, and have identified lots of bits of evidence and testimonials we need to gather. Which means we may be coming to you for some input soon. I guess if I was to offer any advice, it would be to definitely try and carve out a dedicated chunk of time, to clearly work through some distinct messages you want to convey and then match these with evidence. You may need to then go through several iterations of this to find the best match of evidence to message.