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.
Choosing a pre-conference workshop for OEB 2016 presented me with some problems. Unlike earlier years I felt that the workshops available were either too techical for my needs and abilities, too close to what I could learn by working with one of our own experts on learning technology at UC Lillebælt or repeating themes I had learned about during OEB 2014 and 2015 or similar national conferences.
In the end I decided to select a workshop presented by the UK Open University about the design and implementation of a new LMS environment where one of the specifications had been the integration of mobile and desktop access to courses. I was a bit unsure, though, about the content and the actual audience the OU had had in mind: The workshop could be aimed at developers, managers and project leaders (those who order bew or updated LMEs) or teachers and students using the environment on a day-to-day basis. Ideally, all these parties are necessary participants in the successful development of something so complicated as an LMS – and it is easy to imagine a successful workshop based on the participation and contributions of people representing all three sides, but confusion about the target audience may have held prospective participants away.
Another, less legitimate, factor limiting participation may have been that the workshop was provided free of charge. I imagine that if OEB participants had had to defend spending € 50-100 on a workshop to their employer, the number of no-shows would have been considerably smaller. This may seem strange but the explanation had a certain economic logic to it.
The workshop itself could be described as a mixed experience. I could imagine the set-up would work not just well but very well if the workshop leaders were given the task of running a similar workshop for, say, employees and students at a university which wanted to update its LMS. The presenters also did a very good job in making us consider some (three hours only allowed us the scratch the surface) of the complexities in designing a good user experience and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that students at the OU evaluate the UX of the new LMS in positive terms. So in terms of the pedagogical level, I will give the presenters very high marks.
That said, I lacked information about the outcome of the process which led to the update of the OU’s LMS: What would my UX be if I enrolled in a course or a programme at the OU? The process must have led to some insights which could be transferred to other HE institutions. I could also argue that the model presented by the OU is applicable to many major development projects – in fact we teach our students at the Social Work programme in Odense and Vejle some of the same tools for developing social work initiatives. So what were the factors that are specifically relevant for working on LMSes aimed at the mobile emvironment compared to LMSes in general or other development projects? I am still unsure about that.
So to sum up: After the workshop, I am convinced that we use the right didactic tools at the School of Social Work when we teach students about how to develop a programme, but I failed to gain new knowledge about the specific demands LMSes have to meet in the age of the mobile/desktop mix.
It is that time of the year again…
During the next couple of days I’ll be attending Online Educa Berlin for the third year running and you may feel entitled to ask: Have the previous two years had any impact on my day-to-day work?
Good question. It is probably most fair to say that there have been no large-scale revolutions but that Clive Shepherd’s discussion of different ways to “blend” specific elements of learning continues to be a useful model for my planning of courses. Partly by accident, partly by design, I have begun experimenting with recorded instructions and presentations, specifically in a course module where I will be teaching and supervising student groups making interviews with marginalised citizens. The e-learning format seemed an obvious vehicle for instructing students about their assingment and techniques for preparing and analyzing interviews while using the face-to-face time for tutoring and supervision. As the course module has only just started, I won’t be able to evaluate and comment on the experiment before January. But I still think that last year’s workshop gave me the tools needed to conceptualise the different ways of organising the preparation, instruction and application of skills-oriented teaching and learning.
I guess that another lesson which I have learned is that planning and implementing a fundamental revision of a study programme is likely to be doomed because of the complexity of a cross-disciplinary programme. Doing small-scale experiments is a much more viable strategy.
How about this year’s OEB, then? I found it a bit difficult to select a relevant pre-conference workshop but in the end I opted for a workshop about e-learning, content platforms and mobile experience. Most students – and teachers – in HE are familiar with mobile devices and we could argue that the mobile interface is already our main interface with the WWW but we are still some way away from integrating this experience in the design of LMEs and teaching materials.
Another theme that I will try to follow is a series of presentations on the first day of the conference which focus on the role of students in producing learning content and structuring learning. This also fits with a project I will be contributing to during 2017 concerning the implementation of the “study activity model” in Danish professional BA-programmes with a specific focus on blended learning. I will try a write more about this later in the week. As a follow-up I consider attending a number of presentations focussing on students “owning” or “controlling” their learning environment – even though my plans are still open for revision.
Just as on Thursday, I decided to skip the plenary debates in favour of presentations and discussions. On the whole, the two sessions I attended were somewhat disappointing even though they did deliver some insights into approaches to e-learning. Unfortunately, a session on mobile devices and the classroom was placed too late in the afternoon.
The Change: Collected and Collaborative for Quality Learning Outcomes
This was a panel which suffered from what I would call “Conference Desease”: Too many presenters having to little time to present anything of practical value. On the positive side, the panel did address some interesting problems facing e-learning and in particular distance learning.
Both Thanasis Hadzilakos and Mark Brown emphasised a number of risks with an unreflected focus on MOOCs and large-scale e-learning. Brown pointed at the conflict between policy makers’ (and vice-chancellors’) focus on performance indicators and economic efficience on the one hand and academic standards on the other while both Brown and Hadzilakos warned against the unreflected emphasis on English in e-learning programmes and MOOCS. (Perhaps Estie Lubbe’s reflections on the possiblities of deliberately using e-learning in a multilingual context could also be of value here). Hadzilakos also touched upon the issue of creating frameworks for collaboration across locations by using ICT but unfortunately didn’t have the time to elaborate on this subject.
Christine Appel’s presentation followed this lead by addressing the problem of getting students to engage in collaboration during their studies. Again the point is that e-learning in the traditional sense has been seen as a highly individual form of studying while today’s technology at least in principle gives students and teachers access to collaborative tools. Again this was a point which would have merited further elaboration.
Finally, Appel discussed the logistical aspect of distance learning by introducing experiments with students being placed in their future work environment. This meant that eg. student teachers were placed physically on local schools. In present-day circumstances there may be a number of problems facing similar experiments in Denmark, but in principle a structure with social work students being placed at local job centres, social offices etc also outside of their internships could be an interesting innovation.
Aspects of Loving e-Learning
This panel differed very much from the other panels and workshops I attended during this year’s conference. One reason was that it was based on technology rather than didactics (basically: “We have the tools, they will determine the way you work and study”-approach), another that it very much took the “big data”-approach to education, something which has an intuitive appeal to educational managers but perhaps less to teachers. Somehow the underlying message from the panelists was that students are motivated by extrinsic rather than intrinsic factors (hence: gamification) and that we are moving towards a metric society (hence: the systematic collection of data on the micro-level).
What definitively provoked me in this session was the image of the teacher or educator being reduced to a surveyor of data (or in fact being made redundant by computers surveying the performance of students). Similarly, the collaborative or social aspects of learning which had featured prominently in the other sessions I attended, were spectacularly absent from the debate. The attraction to policy makers in government ministries and the staffs of vice-chancellors, on the other hand, is obvious.