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.

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