OEB 2016: Opening Plenary

For obvious reasons, the opening plenary with Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, Tricia Wang and Roger Schank concentrated on the marco perspective on educational policy.

To make a very crude summary, Schleicher represented the OECD standpoint that macroeconomic policies were useless in combatting social inequality while the pace of the technological evolution meant that large groups of the workforce – both in the developed world and the emerging economies – were being left behind as the digital economy is becoming the economy . The OECD’s solution to the problem is – as everyone who has followed the educational policy debate for the last couple of decades will already know – the introduction of lifelong learning, adapted to the demands of employers but with individual workers responsible for choosing the right education and training. The employer-oriented perspective also meant that Schleicher put the emphasis on skills rather than qualifications. (Here we might ask if skills and qualifications have been defined in a correct and useful way at all or if skills-oriented education is simply the latest in a series of policy buzzwords hitting the educational sector).

If I use OEB16’s official theme of owning education as a point of departure, we may ask who is to control access and delivery of education -during childhood and youth as well as during adulthood – as well as the relevance of different types of education if the educational sector is to be reoriented according to the OECD’s principles. I would argue that a picture emerges of governments and businesses controlling access and determing the relevance of specific programmes and courses with the responsibility of choosing the right programmes and courses being placed on the individual.

This also means that educational institutions are being faced with a dilemma: On the one hand governments and businesses demand narrowly skills-based lines of education which can be evaluated according to standardised tests and other criteria. On the other hand individualisation means that educational institutions are supposed to deliver products in the form of teaching, courses and programmes adapted to the needs and demands of individual students. This dilemma goes all the way down the educational sector right to the individual teacher or instructor.

Tricia Wang used the issue of automated learning and the application of algorithms in decision-making processes as her point of departure. Again a very crude summary, but a main point in her speech was that algorithms are only as good as the design and the data which go in to the computation. (Another aspect of this is that “big data” are never a given, unbiased set of information). AI and machine learning which do not take into account that humans are inherently biased – and even more importantly – that some positions hold a social and political privilege will only maintain or even deepen social inequalities and conflicts. This means that education will have to work actively with the development of empathy and the ability to identify different perspectives on any given issue, be it (seemingly) technical or political. On this point, I imagine that Wang and Scleicher would actually agree, even if the OECD point of view does not accept the effects of issues such as class or ethnicity in an economic context.

Roger Schanck’s rather rambling contribution was a bit hard to recapitulate but I suppose that a major theme was questioning the role of formal education and educational institutions in learning. The argument that “college is dead” may seem rather outlandish at a time when the wage premium in the US of a college degree is as high as it has ever been. Schanck may be right in thinking that the business model of US colleges is no longer sustainable as fees has exploded during the last decades limiting the value of thhe premium for individual graduates.