OEB 2016: Smart Universities

The topic for the “smart universities”* panel might seem a bit distant from social work but the presentations were interesting in themselves and at the same time raised some issues which could be relevant for future developments in education. Here I’ll base my post on the presentations by Dorthe Lund of DTU, Denmark, and Maarten van Steen, University of Twente – Twente incidentally has a BA programme in public administration which has some parallels with the professional BA offered by UC Lillebælt.

One point of departure was the design of “smart” campusses, defined as environments where academic staff and students had access to the infrastructure of the campus and were able to pull data about the use of various kinds of infrastructure from different kinds of data gathering devices, like eg. “smart” lampposts or sensors placed in libraries or similar kinds of semi-public environments. This gave students access to data which would allow them to search for patterns in everyday behaviour and develop solutions which could be appliced in practice. As Dorthe Lund noted, the introduction of a “smart” campus also meant that teachers and students had to find ways to collaborate with janitorial and administrative staff in the design and implementation of projects.

Two general points were relevant to both presentations.

The first relates to the physical settings of education: Here both DTU and UoT had worked with designing specialised workshop-areas on campus as a supplement to (or even a replacement of) more traditional classrooms. This would allow groups of students to collaborate on the development and design of different types of projects. We should also note that even if “campus” has become a popular term for any kind of location with academic and educational facilities, Twente is more like the traditional US (or Oxbridge) type of campus with a mix of (student) housing, leisure activities and academic facilities.

The second obviously relates to privacy and the integrity of data collected on the smart campusses. Here universities and other HE institutions have to balance the possiblities of surveillance technology with the legal and ethical issues raised by mass surveillance. At the OEB 2015 Cory Doctorow adressed some of these issues and his speech is still available on YouTube.

*I’m a bit allergic to “smart” as a buzzword, hence the quotation marks

OEB 2016: Limitless Learning

Limitless learning was the general topic of one of the planary debates which opened Friday’s sessions.

Among other things, Alec Couros notes the expansion of the types of sources available in what he called the network/teacher diagram. The insight that knowledge is now available in many more formats obviously makes the task of teachers more complex but learners/students also face a more complicated world.

On the positive side, some creative students (in all ages) are able to use the internet actively no only by searching for and applying existing knowledge but also by presenting problems and asking for help or guidance. In this way, a service like YouTube has developed into a huge, sprawling repository of learning objects and this has happend without anyone ever designing YouTube as such. On the negative side, the development of the net also has created a number of problems, including the supply of all kinds of false information, and the abuse of individuals’ digital identities (Couros gave some chilling examples by presenting his fakes digital dobbelgangers). Finally, Couros also raised the question of the future availability of the free internet as an issue.

Diana Laurillard took a slighly different perspective to the debate by discussing the various roles and activities involved in learning. One point related to the topic of e-learning is the relative importance of acquiring knowledge vs. inquiring, discussing and applying knowledge. Teachers will have very different roles in these four types of learning, but e-learning platforms and the design of courses will have to take the possiblities for interaction between teachers and students and between students themselves into account. Laurillard also pointed out the MOOCs could only partially realise the potentials of e-learning as they lacked the element of individualisation which students at the basic or bachelor level need. In this way MOOCs in their original form could be a useful tool for learners in mid-career, but they wouldn’t supplant more traditional forms of contact between students and between students and teachers, at least not without a serious loss of quality in education.

A second point raised by Laurillard was that the drivers of digital learning – both in form of technological developments and actors pushing for e-learning – might be strong but that they in general were badly aligned with the different needs and behaviours of learners.

Due to a conflict of schedules I had to leave before Mark Surman of the Mozilla Foundation had finished his contribution but I noted some important points in his speech: The internet and digitalisation hasn’t overcome traditional social cleavages – there is still a massive difference between younger and older people when it came to the use of digital technology, variations in educational background and income still play a crucial role in acces to and use of the digital world and finally he, like Alec Cuoros, was worried about the tendency toward centralisation of services on the internet.

OEB 2016: Gilly Salmon and “Carpe Diem”

At OEB 2014 I attended a workshop on Transferring face-to-face courses to online courses which included an introduction to what is known as storyboarding courses. The main idea is to make a fairly detailed plan for the sequence and content of student activities in the classroom as well as outside in order to create a logically coherent structure which will lead the students to the designed outcome of the course or module. Storyboarding differs from traditional course planning in that courses are planned backwards – teachers are required to consider if and how any given learning activity contributes to the learning goals. “Carpe Diem”, which was developed by Gilly Salmon, expands storyboarding by making a framework for groups of teachers or instructors for how to run the design process. Basically a “Carpe Diem” process is performed as a two-day intensive workshop beginning with a course blueprint and then adding storyboarding, the development of prototypes for course activities (especially those run outside of the classroom), a reality check with external participants reviewing the storyboard and the prototypes and finally a process of reviewing and adjustment.

If I go back to the 2014 workshop, I and a collegue who also participated in that workshop agreed that storyboarding would be relevant to implement in the revision of our distance programme but we failed to put this into practice. One obvious answer could be that our department hadn’t thought of making this an embedded practice in the review of course modules, so a “Carpe Diem” process for the Social Work programme might be the solution to the problem with introducing storyboarding.

Some sceptical perspectives on the “Carpe Diem” framwork could point to the fact that it is intrinsically linked with the learning goal-orientede way of running higher education. The storyboarding may on the one hand expand the domain of learning from the classroom to everything students do related to a specific course or programme while on the other hand limiting learning to a pre-set list of goals. The room for activities that are not initiated, controlled and assessed by a teacher may be so limited that students will learn how to encounter the unexpected and use their own curiosity in a learning process. In this way, the higher education institution and the formal education system takes – or at least aims to take – total control of students’ learning.

Another, very practical, issue might be that teachers are working on a number of course modules at the same time which may make it hard to run “Carpe Diems” on more that two or three course modules on the same time while planning also has to take the distributon of the work load of individual teachers into account. Similarly, the successful implementation of the “Carpe Diem” plan relies on the scheduling staff (and software) to respect the sequencing included in the plan.

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.