Monday, January 18, 2016

The Managed Learning Environment

I started teaching in 1982 - as a trainee teacher it was quite an intimidating experience at first having to take a class of 30 boisterous young teenagers for 30 minutes to an hour - lesson plans were a useful way for a novice teacher to think about lessons. Some teachers used lesson plans as a useful aide, a guide - they weren't compulsory. I remember being impressed by an experienced and well respected seasoned teacher - walking down the corridor on our way to our lessons I was interested to see how he did his lesson plans and asked if I could take a peak ..."read my mind" he said ... he knew what he wanted to achieve but rather than have a plan - he had a strategy - the plans for which would emerge through interaction with the students. This teacher was always open and his classes were frequently observed and participated in by trainee teachers - the students were always engaged and gained very good results - he was an excellent and experienced teacher - he had little need to write down a detailed lesson plan.

Today, I continue to be impressed by excellent teachers who enthuse their students with the joy of learning, whose lessons emerge creatively through interaction with students in real time as the class unfolds and as when I started teaching - these teachers may not have submitted a lesson plan or may have deviated from their lesson plan in response to students. Today however, lesson plans are compulsory in many institutions and many excellent teachers are marked down by management if they deviate from lesson plans or fail to submit them. Lesson plans - a once useful aide has become a management bureaucracy.

The story of how lesson plans turned from teacher aide to management bureaucracy can be read in many of the changes I have seen in the education system over the last 30 years - one of the worst examples being how management turned the potential of the web in education into just another content delivery, tracking and control system. The mid to late 1990s enriched education with access to bountiful new and external connections - empowering teacher and student autonomy, the web was a virtual learning environment where students and teachers could curate and create their own resources. During the early noughties there was a  trend to create institutional portals ... gateways to prescribed on-line information and content ... much in the image of the standard model of formal education. Portals quickly became Managed Learning Environments - on-line centralised frameworks for content delivery, student tracking and the generation of management data.

It's no wonder that formal education has taken to Managed Learning Environments - management has appropriated education and engineered it in its own image and for its own needs. There is a constant need to manage - to set rules and processes; to check, measure, track and control - to test, measure, make reports and to generate data. Students, teachers and staff are treated like commodities that are selected, processed, measured and graded like clockwork oranges. People have been replaced by data - they have become data entities to be managed, processed and accounted. In the education system people have become dials on management dashboards.

The growth of data in education has presented new opportunities for the eduction industry to sell new products to satisfy education managerialism's need for efficiency, control and automation. The new products coming to market are automated data driven managed learning environments like the predictive analytics Adaptive Learning systems from the likes of Knewton, D2L Brightspace LeaP, Cogbooks and McGraw Hill's ALEKS. ALEKS for example is described as "a Web-based, artificially intelligent assessment and learning system. ALEKS uses adaptive questioning to quickly and accurately determine exactly what a student knows and doesn't know in a course. ALEKS then instructs the student on the topics she is most ready to learn .... ALEKS also provides the advantages of one-on-one instruction, 24/7, from virtually any Web-based computer for a fraction of the cost of a human tutor."

I remember Cailean Hargrave's presentation at FOTE 2011 called "Student Analytics for Success".
Cailean talked about the exponential rise of data and how IBM's tools help organisations work smarter with all that data. He described how the Memphis City Police department used data to "predict" crime events and then use police to "prevent" the predicted crimes in Minority Report pre-crime style. Cailean went on to describe how this type of predictive analytics could be applied to education to ensure student success with a system predicting a student's learning curve and fulfilling it by feeding students only the right content at the right time so that a student never fails. Ensuring success, fulfilling predictions and meeting targets - this type of language goes down well with management but didn't go down at all well with teachers and academics at FOTE who argued the value of creativity, serendipity and the fact that failure is an essential part of learning.

Within the education system as it stands today - the use of data driven managed learning environments seems to be inevitable - the logical conclusion to the appropriation of education by management. Many in educational management point out that while machines and computers have driven efficiencies in other sectors they have yet to drive the same efficiencies in education. Data driven managed learning environments offer management a way at last to realise the advantages and efficiencies of the machine age by providing "one-on-one instruction, 24/7, from virtually any Web-based computer for a fraction of the cost of a human tutor." For management - this is compelling stuff but is it education?

For me - data driven managed learning environments are for clockwork oranges - they are more like programming than learning.

Predictive prescriptive analytics create an artificial and self fulfilling filter bubble .. a predictive preparation for an environment managed by machines.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Education: Think Outside The Box

Education has become confused with formal Education Systems and the complications of their specific politics, institutions, resources and technologies. 

Formal education systems process people for exams - they provide limited, measured and managed learning environments geared to tangible skills such as rational-analytical thinking, attendance and punctuality.

However, don't let the system limit education - formal education systems are just a small subset of education - we are all natural learners - If we think outside the box then our education is unlimited. Education is a broad concept that overlaps all of our learning which involves other people.  We learn all the time - through our actions and experiences and through communication  - from dialogue with others and from others’ monologue - watching, listening and reading what others have to show and tell.  

Some of the best things I remember from my time at school were visits to the outside world - geography trips to the countryside; science and history trips to museums, sports trips to parks, swimming pools and sports centres. Public and common spaces have helped support formal education for a long time but more importantly - they have always supported informal education and learning. Parks, museums and libraries are easy to access life long learning environments - there are no qualification or minimum entry requirements - they are open, you can just walk in. Parks, museums and libraries won't ask you questions and examine you - they are places where you ask the questions and where you examine.

Libraries were established as education spaces for those who would otherwise have limited opportunities for education or self-improvement - they were open to everyone in a community who wanted access to books and learning. Libraries are adapting to social and cultural changes - they are evolving to become ‘read/write’ platforms where people are encouraged to contribute and exchange as well as consume. The Common Libraries initiative for example has its origins in Open Source, Creative Commons movements and community-led libraries - it draws upon the peer-to-peer and sharing economy as well as an enthusiasm for hacking and making. Leading edge library initiatives are seeking to decommodify or ‘commonify’ knowledge, to develop libraries as peer-to-peer platforms for knowledge exchange founded upon Commons principles to help build a social knowledge economy. New developments in libraries and other public an common spaces offer opportunities to think outside the box about what education is, what it can become and how we go about it - they offer viable platforms to explore parallel liberal forms of education to the established formal education system and its focus on examinations.

Public and common spaces help us think and see outside the standard school or college model - projects like Learning Towns and Scale Free Schools recognise opportunities for learning beyond the school walls and consider a new infrastructure of education. Based on conversations with pupils Learning Towns highlight possibilities for learning to be a catalyst and a driver for better communities. Scale Free Schools asks if dedicated school buildings are really the most appropriate model for learning in the coming decades and What is the role of the community in education, and the role of education in communities?

Information is a vital ingredient in education and never before have we had such opportunity to access information as we have today with information technology and the Internet. The Internet supports both formal and informal learning - from education system managed learning environments, through the multitude of MOOC hybrids and community learning environments like Peter Shukie's COOCs through to decentralised peer environments on social media and social networks.

Thinking outside the education box opens up new opportunities to innovate education and connect it with communities. Tech City initiatives like Croydon Tech City apply the concept of Learning Towns to develop communities by embracing the startup mindset with an an entrepreneurial spirit of exploration, curiosity and a focus on possibilities. Tech City initiatives offer an option to embed education in real world activities - to use the resources in a community to develop ideas and make something with them.

Formal education is for exams informal education is for life.

Don't let the education system limit your education - think outside the box - unlimit your education.

Monday, January 11, 2016

How To Change The Education System: Gamification

At a simple level the education system can be considered a competitive platform game of levels, tests, rules, players and outcomes.

Players enter the game with cards they have been dealt and use these in the grading tests that divide the players and determine their fate.

At each level players must learn and remember specific things on which they will be individually tested - performance in the tests determines whether they can stay in the game and whether they can win enough points to gain access to the next level

The education game is a big investment with high stakes - performance in the grading tests is life changing - for some its a life sentence certified as failures for some its a life enhancement certified as winners.

Its no wonder that educationalists have taken to gamification and that the education system is comfortable this  - gamification is no threat to the way things are.

Performance managerialism exploits gamification to disguise, promote and condition thinking inside the box to reinforce conformity and control by authority using the rules, tests and finite outcomes of the game. At its worst data obsessive compulsive managerialism turns the education game into a Red Queens Rat Race of spiralling workloads from endless rules, tests, reports and the need for data that forces players to run ever faster just stay in the same spot on the treadmill. The players become exhausted - the game becomes everything - education has been played - its a strategic win for management and a loss for education.

While the Fins are changing their education game few countries have this type of political vision - for most they will need to change the parameters of the existing game and use the machinery of the education system and its penchant for gamification to bring about change. The power of gamification is all to evident in the UK education system - set up league tables and watch schools jostle for position, set up targets and watch the players attempt to hit them. The power of the system can be used to bring about change - the type of change depends on how the game is rigged - e.g. whether the game sets students to act like machines and memorise times tables or race with the machines using technology to carry out mundane tasks and develop as people as humans.

Education can be a game changer but first we need to change the game - ultimately this requires political vision!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

How To Change The Education System: Race With The Machines

The cost of IT in education is clear but its effect is far less so - students, computers and learning is controversial to say the least!

The nature of IT has changed significantly over the time I have worked in education. In the last decades of the 20th century IT was rare and the education system was one of those places where you could learn about and use computers. Since the turn of the 21st century IT has become pervasive in the lives of our staff and students. Our students have "grown up digital" - they are used to using computers, smartphones, the Internet, the Web, social networks, social media, messaging apps and a whole lot more everyday and all the time - IT is part of people's personal and public life.

While IT in society develops and progresses apace (even exponentially) IT in education hit a wall at the end of the 20th century, flatlined and entered an induced coma. Time has stopped for the education system and it still dreams of IT like its 1999 - the the world beyond the dreamer is but a whisper, anything that might cause waking is blocked out and everything is assimilated into a Web 1.0 push\broadcast content delivery and testing PC model.

When I started teaching educational IT and management IT were separate - educational IT was diverse, exciting and full of potential. Today educational IT has been unified and appropriated by and for management and the education industry - its standardised, mundane and used for the measurement, management and control of staff, students and institutions.

The education system has a crisis of relevance with zombie IT - a monster mash that is complex, expensive, rigid, and slow moving – increasingly beneficial to the corporate education industry but increasingly ridiculous and damaging to education and learning.

The students view ... "education is not utilising technology effectively" - they note that "technology plays an important role in their everyday life but not when they are in education". They notice that on-line assessment simply mimics traditional assignment practice and ask for social, community and discussion type assignments and assessments. They note that smartphones improve ease of sharing and information access but note that there use is in education and learning is usually banned . Students ask that they be allowed to use their smartphones as this will be helpful in making their learning more effective. Students are aware how social media is widely used and established in their lives but that that the education sector is only now starting to see its potential for learning - the students ask that education use social media as a platform for sharing and in so doing boost learning. Students note that today a number of technology options are available that can boost the learning experience and make it more flexible, easy, comfortable and effective for students but the education system is not utilising technology effectively.

Its time for the education system to wake up and interact with the real world - a world where machine assistants we carry around with us everywhere do things for us.

In a race without machines we are bound to fail - technology (or at least the right type of technology) always provides an advantage - from the use of the wheel, through the use of arrows in warfare and even in the humble pub quiz - if you have a smartphone .... you can simply search for the right answer. Education without technology is nonsensical and damaging.

In a race against machines we are bound to fail - people are not machines -  there is no way the average person can beat a calculator - leave mechanical tasks to the machines.

In a race with machines we have a chance to succeed ... future generations will have to live in a world full of machines - we owe it to our children to prepare them for this. Our education system should use its time, energy and resources developing us as humans - leave mechanical tasks to the machines - we need to use and collaborate with machines as appropriate.

We need 21st century pedagogy matched with 21st century technology!

Its time for education to take back IT from management, use appropriate technologies and race with the machines to develop people as humans.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

How To Change The Education System: Change What is Measured And Reverse The Spell

Although the formal education system is obsessed with measurement I have lost count of the number of times I have heard education managers say things like "if it can't' be measured, it doesn't exist".

This obsession with behaviourist style objective testing and measurement makes education performance manageable, it makes education SMART (Specific , Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-related) but not necessarily relevant.

SMART Behaviourist testing and measurement reinforces and perpetuates the existence and conditions of those things that are tested and measured. Formal education examinations test people in isolation using memory, rational analysis, pen and paper to write answer questions posed to them. Once upon a time the examinations of formal education seemed "normal" but no one operates like this any more - the power of the formal education behaviourist system machine maintains these practices while all around things have changed. Much of the formal education system and its examinations have become an anachronism - the only place left where young people still write private pen letters.

Only the education system seems (self) satisfied - universities, employers and society in general want the education system to help prepare people for learning, work and life in the present and the future rather than for the tests of the education system and the past. "I only remember things I can't look up" (Einstein) - this has never been more true - through technology people are connected more than ever before the world, knowledge and how we access and use it are changing faster than ever before. In a faster changing and  connected world learning rather than knowing has never been more important - the society been for many years now been calling for the education system to develop active, transferable and life-long learning"soft skills" such as research, self-management, communication, collaboration, creativity, crap detection (critical thinking) and the use of technology.

The formal education system's spell "if it can't' be measured, it doesn't exist" can be reversed to bring into existence new desired things through measurement - a type of quantum existentialist spell that reads "It exists because I measure it" - subverting the machinery while maintaining the systems existential rational - "I measure therefore I am"

The OECD Pisa tests have long been heavily criticised by progressive educationalists  BUT ..... ironically may just be the method by which radical change in the education systems may be achieved since the OECD Pisa tests deeply influence educational practices in many countries. Andreas Schleicher predicts the new Pisa teamwork test will be game-changer. The new test has "computer-based tasks where students work through a “chat” function with computer-generated virtual collaborators to solve a problem ....  the measurement focuses primarily on the way a pupil engages with others, rather than solely on the correct solution".

The fact that OECD Pisa tests will measure teamwork, communication and collaborative problem solving will, like a quantum existentialist spell, quickly conjure these things into formal and significant existence in education systems.

The problem with collaborative problem solving is one of control ... The OECD PISA tests achieve the test control by using "chatbot" collaborators - the use of "chatbot" collaborators in education will be highly controversial and highly significant.

AI and robotics are developing exponentially and will play a major part in the future and many fear that our children are 'destined to lose out to robots' due to outdated exams system bringing chatbots into the exams will I think be like letting students use calculators. In the early phases in the "rise of the robots" we will race with the machines - collaborating with AI and robotics to get things done - we need to bring collaboration with people and technology firmly into the education system as soon as possible and develop these skills and techniques for the system and for our learners.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

How To Change The Education System: Think Inside The Box

Formal education can be considered as a system (indeed it is called a system) - a bounded entity with specific inputs and outputs. From this perspective the education system can bee seen as if it were a Skinner box - a behaviourist's stimulus-response conditioning chamber.

Behaviourism focuses on observable phenomena - that which can be objectively tested and measured, internal states such as thought, feelings, passion, emotion, motivation etc are excluded. This explains a lot about the obsession of the education system with objective testing, measurement and data and the number of times I have heard managers sincerely say things like " If it can't' be measured, it doesn't exist", "if you can't measure it you can't manage it" and of course if you can’t measure something you can’t control it". It also explains a lot about why progressive education ideas that focus on people's internal states fail to gain significant focus and attention from "the system" (those in positions of power and authority) and have failed to make any significant impact on the system.

A system is a set of interacting or interdependent component parts forming a complex/intricate emergent whole with a set of rules that governs its structure and/or behaviour. A system is a bounded entity with specific inputs, outputs and feedback mechanisms that maintain homeostasis despite a changing external environment. This explains a lot about why the education system has proved so difficult to change - as a system it is designed to maintain the status quo and for self preservation.

A behaviourist system is simple but powerful descriptive model of formal education - it explains a lot about its operation and its resistance to change but also suggests a method through which it can change and change quite radically and quickly.

At a simple level the formal education system can be considered and manipulated as a behaviourist experiment controlled by three key independent variables: money, inspection and measurement with a single dependent variable - exam results. Its a pretty depressing point of view but seems to describe the way many operate within the system - focusing on money, inspection, measurement and exam results, excluding "extraneous" non objective variables such as happiness and focusing on performance management through data on objective key performance indicators.

A key factor in experimental design is operational definition - the definition of the terms and variables used. If we consider the formal education system as a behaviourist experiment then we might just be able to induce a change in behaviour not by changing the system but by manipulating and redefining the key inputs to the current system (money, inspection and measurement) while maintaining the exam results but to a different purpose!

Friday, January 1, 2016

How to Change The UK Education System: Introduction

One approach to education system change is ...... education system change ...... the type of revolutionary system redesign like that taking place in Finland where they have significantly reduced testing, broken down subject boundaries and connected teaching and learning to topics and activities in the real world. The Fins want to "build a system with little red tape and a high impact"

“We insist that education must not settle for adapting to change, but also act as a driver. To raise brave, compassionate citizens capable of independent thought and bearing the responsibility for themselves and for others; curious people, capable of finding things out for themselves and assessing the reliability of whatever information they come across. People with a tolerance of uncertainty, the courage to implement their ideas in practice and even break a few rules, if necessary.”

The Finish approach may be possible in Finnish society but revolutionary change is unlikely to be possible in the UK ... it is likely that any change in the UK education system will have to be more incremental and evolutionary - a systems approach through adjustments to the system interfaces and its transaction costs and "currencies" or the development of a parallel form.

A systems approach to UK formal education views it as a interconnected set of parts driven, bound and controlled by a number of key interfaces and transactions - adjust the interfaces and transactions and you can change the behaviour of the system.

My natural thinking about the UK education system sees its problems as systemic - in a series of blogs titled "How to Change The UK Education System" I will explore various ideas about the education - from systems approaches through to informal "anarchic" parallel forms.