Studies have demonstrated that texts written in difficult to read fonts are easier to learn from than when they are written in easy to read fonts. When more effort is required to distinguish visually ambiguous symbols then apparently more effort gets exerted on comprehension too. This phenomenon is one of various others showing that challenge (as long as it is not excessive) acts as a spur to learning.

Deliberately increasing the effort involved in interactions contradicts the underlying approach typically applied in user-experience/user-interaction design of making interactions as effortless and automatic, as convenient, as possible.

The contradiction of challenge and convenience is central to the effectiveness of educational systems. Levels of challenge appropriate to optimal learning may be too inconvenient to induce engagement while levels of convenience ensuring engagement may not provide sufficient challenge for effective learning. The resultant trade-off between the factors of challenge and convenience is not necessarily easily optimised

The twentieth century witnessed an explosion of mass participation in education and the extension of that participation into more and more of learner’s lives (which has continued into the twenty-first century). Achieving this huge expansion of learning has been a staggering triumph in terms of increased learner engagement but it is not clear how the balance of challenge and convenience has been affected by this, hence what may have been the effect on learners’ learning. Are learners learning what they need to learn to act effectively in employment (for example)?  

A CPID report from 2015, discussing the employability skills of new graduates, commented that such graduates had skills deficiencies in four key areas:

Working life’ skills: this includes turning up on time and looking presentable, but also takes in what is expected of an employee. As one HR professional puts it: “It’s understanding what being a working professional means.”

Self-awareness and confidence: lack of confidence is often the result of a young person’s life experience so far, and its impact is often underestimated by more experienced staff. One young person told the interviewer: “In my first couple of weeks I’d be scared about picking up the phone. But now it doesn’t faze me; I just pick up the phone and approach people around me.”

Communication: learning how to communicate with colleagues, whether it’s face-to-face or via email, is vitally important, but so many are unaware of the impact of what they say. One young employee said: “The amount of times I would speak to someone and say something completely inappropriate and not have an absolute clue about what I did wrong at the time.”

Commercial skills: this involves not being more business focused, but also an ability to see things from the client’s point of view.

Beyond the issue of employability, Critiques have been made concerning how successfully effectively autonomous adult individuals are developing, suggesting that traditional adult identity is becoming increasingly deferred.   

Being young today is no longer a transitory stage, but rather a choice of life, well established and brutally promoted by the media system. While the classic paradigms of adulthood and maturation could interpret such infantile behaviour as a symptom of deviance, such behaviour has become a model to follow, an ideal of fun and being carefree, present in a wide variety of contexts of society. The contemporary adult follows a sort of thoughtful immaturity, a conscious escape from the responsibilities of an anachronistic model of life. If an ideal of maturity remains, it does not find behavioural compensations in a society where childish attitudes and adolescent life models are constantly promoted by the media and tolerated by institutions.

The kidult does not design his existence along a line that goes from the past to the future; rather, he takes his decisions day-to-day, on the base of needs and desires related to the situation and the context. He lives an artificial youthfulness as infinite potentiality, he lives in a universe in which any valence to diversity between young and adult has been subtracted and in which, on the contrary, the lack of distinction between the two became a characterising element.

In kidults, in particular, the sense of dependency prevails over the search for independence. It becomes an inescapable condition which jeopardises the natural path toward autonomy and individual and social self-determination.

Parts of this critique of ‘kidulthood’ are reminiscent of  the ideas Ian Bogost expressed in ‘Play Anything’  relating to irony as an inauthentic form of play, which was touched on in an earlier post (which discussed how play could be partly understood as a form of respect for the intrinsic properties of objects in and of themselves, demonstrated through an enthusiasm for engaging with those objects as they are rather than as how we might like them to be).

A similar critical view expressed by Simon Pegg, argued that deferred maturity acted as a kind of escapism from unwelcome aspects of reality. 

Recent developments in popular culture were arguably predicted by the French philosopher and cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard in his book, ‘America’, in which he talks about the infantilzation of society. Put simply, this is the idea that as a society, we are kept in a state of arrested development by dominant forces in order to keep us more pliant. We are made passionate about the things that occupied us as children as a means of drawing our attentions away from the things we really should be invested in, inequality, corruption, economic injustice etc. It makes sense that when faced with the awfulness of the world, the harsh realities that surround us, our instinct is to seek comfort, and where else were the majority of us most comfortable than our youth? A time when we were shielded from painful truths by our recreational passions, the toys we played with, the games we played, the comics we read. There was probably more discussion on Twitter about the The Force Awakens and the Batman vs Superman trailers than there was about the Nepalese earthquake or the British general election.

Arguments have been made  (here by the libertarian FEE) that increasing amounts of compulsory formal education has acted to erode the challenge faced during childhood and adolescence, by introducing an increasingly extended period of economic dependency and integration into a top-down system of control that is inherent in the increasing replacement of employment with education for young people.

An explicitly technology related dimension has also been incorporated into this discussion, questioning how the ubiquity and sophistication of technology has resulted in a situation where many people feel that they could not hope to understand how much of the world functions, to the extent that they come to believe that they can only stand in relation to it much as a young child stands in relation to an adult world that stretches inestimably far beyond the limits of their comprehension- experiencing a type of learned helplessness. 

“Most people think about understanding as a binary condition,” Arbesman told me in an interview. “Either you understand things completely or not at all.” That viewpoint is dangerous when it’s applied to technology today, because there’s simply no way to understand everything. (Or, as Arbesman puts it in his book: “The vast majority of computer programs will never be thoroughly comprehended by any human being.”) Instead, he argues, people should be acting as technological naturalists, approaching complex digital systems the way a biologist would examine living systems. Doing so will require people to rethink what it means to understand technology, and at what scale:

Abstraction in computing—and the elegance of interfaces like the ones that make MacBooks and iPhones so user friendly, for instance—has made machines delightful and easy to use, but has also created a huge gap in comprehension that didn’t exist in the early days of personal computing. (In the beginning, if you wanted to mess around with a computer, you had to learn to speak its language; not the other way around.)


However, various examples (some really quite inspiring) exist that show young people’s willingness and capacity for embracing challenges that bridge educational contexts and the wider world. These may be a minority of learners, but perhaps a minority that is starting to grow.







Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

In Education Technology as ‘The New Normal’ (a talk given on 24/5/17 at CENTRO’s symposium “Data, Paper, Scissors Tech-Based Learning Experiences for Higher Education” in Mexico City by Audrey Watters), the following point is made-

I want to be sure that anytime we talk about “the future of education,” that we always consider “the history of education.” We cannot break from history. We have not severed ourselves from the past through the introduction of computers or computer networks. Our institutions have not been severed from the past because of these. Our cultures have not. (At least not entirely. Not yet.) We have not.

When we talk about “the future of education” as an explicitly technological future, I want us to remember that “the history of education” has long been technological – thousands of years of writing, hundreds of years of print, a century of “teaching machines,” 75 years of computing, almost 60 years of computer-assisted instruction, at least 40 years of the learning management system, more than 25 years of one-to-one laptop programs, a decade (give or take a year) of mobile learning. Education technology is not new; it has not appeared “all of a sudden”; and it is not a rupture. It is inextricably linked to history, to histories of education and to histories of technology.

I very much agree with this statement, but feel that it is giving insufficient consideration to an incredibly crucial landmark in the history of educational technology- the ascent of Taylorism (Frederick Winslow Taylor, March 20, 1856 – March 21, 1915). Quoting from the paper Scientific Management Still Endures in Education (various emphases mine)

Frederick W. Taylor’s “scientific” and managerial approach to the workplace maximized efficiency and productivity through the standardization of labor. Through motion and time study, Taylor vigorously studied body movements and assigned exact approximations of the time necessary to complete the labor. A primary principle of his management approach was to eliminate opportunities of chance or accident through the scientific investigation of every detail of labor. Scientific management eliminated the need for skilled labor by delegating each employee one simple task to repeat over and over. Although this method increased the productivity of factories, it stripped employees their freedom to choose their work, as well as how it should be done

With the publication of his first article, “The Elimination of Waste in Education,” John Franklin Bobbitt (1912) started his career as a leader in the field of curriculum and became one of the pioneers that set the stage for the adoption and implementation of scientific management in school administration in the US. Bobbitt’s work in curriculum studies in the US is particularly important because of his application of Frederick Taylor’s concepts of scientific management to educational management and planning. While arguing that factory-like efficiency in education should be driven by objectives, Bobbitt (1920) stated: “It is the objectives and the objectives alone … that dictate the pupil-experiences that make up the curriculum. It is then these in their turn that dictate the specific methods to be employed by the teachers and specific material helps and appliances and opportunities to be provided. These in their turn dictate the supervision, the nature of the supervisory organization, the quantity of finance, and the various other functions involved in attaining the desired results. And, finally, it is the specific objectives that provide standards to be employed in the measurement of results.”

Bobbit argued that schools, like businesses, should be efficient, eliminate waste, and focus on outcomes to the degree that the curriculum must be useful in shaping students into adult workers. Along with Frederick Winslow Taylor, Bobbit believed that efficient outcomes depended on centralized authority and precise, top down instruction for all tasks performed. Within Bobbitt’s educational vision—similar to Taylor’s vision of managers—the administrator gathers all possible information about the educational process and develops the best methods for teachers to get students to meet the standards. 

According to Bobbitt’s (1913) scientifically managed education, teachers must be required to follow the methods determined by their administrators because they are not capable of determining such methods themselves: The burden of finding the best methods is too large and too complicated to be laid on the shoulders of the teachers … The ultimate worker, the teacher in our case, must be a specialist in the performance of the labor that will produce the product. Bobbitt’s conception embraced one of the core logics of scientific management in education, which asserts that the end-points of predetermined objectives and/or standards alone drive the educational process (the production of students). Within these logics, all aspects of education therefore must serve the ends of the education process, with student learning purely based on pre-determination, and teachers’ content delivery structured by pre-determined scientific methods. Thus, the ends determine the means. This allowed the curriculum to be broken down into content units that could be standardized, determined in advance, taught in a linear manner, and easily assessed.

Scientific management of education is the essence of twentieth century educational technology.  In many ways I think that not very much has really changed so far in the new millennium.

Technology in education does not have to be what learners or educators encounter, it can be the provenance of education’s administrators. This is information technology understood in terms of social processes rather than understood by reference to what kinds of artefacts are used in educational activities- information technology in terms of software rather than hardware, where the software is being run on humans, not on computers. 

The essence of scientific management in education was that the education system was centrally planned and the centre decided everything for everyone involved in the system (which included everyone at some stage in their lives, education being mandatory).

In striking contrast to that, the controversy-laden buzzword in education right now is ‘choice‘.

It is undeniable that the idea of choice in education is going hand-in-hand with governmental abrogation of universal education and the opening up of education to the business world. I share the concerns of many that the business world may not be entirely to be trusted with assuming the mantle of the principal educator of society. For as long as educational provision continues to be legally mandated and for as long as most families cannot easily afford to reduce their working hours sufficiently to home-school their children then I strongly expect to see continuing unscrupulous profiteering by educational businesses that recognise that they have a captive market. This is what a monopoly is. The monopoly in education provision is just being sold to the private sector.

Where consumers of education are legally obliged to purchase it, how much of a choice do they really have? The prospect of giving people choice of education providers but not the choice to refuse any of offers provided has notable parallels with some phenomena that have arisen in the USA- firstly, compulsory medical insurance purchasing (and the dissatisfaction therewith) and secondly to the party political system that somehow resulted in the presidential election being contested by two people that the majority of voters both disliked so much that they may have found it hard to decide which they disliked more, but what other choice did they seem to have?


My EdTech career actually began in the year 2000 (although the word ‘EdTech’ was not actually in use at that time, people talked about ‘educational software’). I was working in a start up where I wrote ActionScript for Flash games for BBC Education web pages (Mainly about Robot Wars and the Tweenies). At the time I thought of what I was doing more as game writing rather than as instructional design.

I used to genuinely enjoy using Flash. Flash is really, really quick and easy to use compared to DOM based scripting- so much so that while teaching full time I could still get around to writing a bunch of Flash movies for physics teaching (animations of electric currents, kinetic gasses, free-falling objects, etc…).

I was rather sorry to see Flash start to fall out of usage in the big wide world, but was reassured that the fairly old Windows PCs used where I taught still had IE and old versions of Chrome installed and hence were Flash player enabled. Students accessing the Flash movies on their own up-to-date laptops and tablets weren’t always able to, but as I was teaching physical courses rather than distance learning courses it seemed reasonable that those students could access Flash content when in college.

Since studying an e-learning technology MSc I started to gain an appreciation of content authoring software tools, and noted that many of them boasted of being able to convert Flash content into HTML5 content. Because of the type of content that most authoring tools tend to produce- supercharged PowerPoint, more or less- it did not occur to me that the kind of richly interactive gaming/simulation content that I had liked in Flash could be automatically recreated in HTML5.

This has indeed been happening though, just in a rather stop-start fashion. The latest step in this process (which has been going on since 2012) is Adobe Animate. This is Flash really, but not called Flash anymore.

In practice, Animate works rather differently to Flash; ActionScript has been replaced by the CreateJS libraries. CreateJS is pretty easy to use- if you already understand JavaScript (in other words, less easy to understand than ActionScript). Text input can’t be handled entirely within the Flash-style development environment, it relies on adding a DOM Input Text element.

Most significantly I feel, the documentation for scripting and interactivity in Animate seems frankly to be a pretty muddled mish-mash of stuff that is easily understood only by those who already know JavaScript fairly well and/or have been specifically keeping up with the development of Flash to HTML5 compatible output. It is not exactly made easy for a novice to know where to start.

Ease of initial adoption was one of the great advantages of Flash. I can believe that Flash helped a generation of internet users to engage with web programming.

Flash allowed scripting to be experimented with in playful ways that provided concrete feedback (graphical objects would move and change shape or colour). Arcane I/O protocols did not need to be learned. Children who had learned coding using Scratch would probably not feel too out of their depth scripting in Flash. Flash acted as an informal bridge between web-based graphic design and web functionality scripting.

Animate has some impressive multimedia capabilities that could make for very impressive and versatile browser games (it’s got a 360 degree rotatable stage). Whether Animate is easy enough to use that its features will be taken and run with by a large, diverse community of imaginative designer-developers is not clear. Conceivably, future versions of Animate will have more of Flash’s ease-of-use. Personally I intend to skill myself up on Animate just in case it does become the rebirth of Flash.


EdTech’s disputed Politicosocioeconomics

I recently read an Inside Higher Ed Article which discussed assumptions about political ideologies associated with EdTech that were described in an Educause article, which were summarised (in the article- I use a direct quote here) as-

  • The rise of educational technology is part of a larger shift in political thought, from favoring government oversight to asserting free-market principles, as well as a response to the increasing costs of higher education.
  • The technocentric view that technology can solve these challenges combines with a vision of education as a product that can be packaged, automated, and delivered to students.
  • Unless greater collaborative efforts take place between edtech developers and the greater academic community, as well as more informed deep understandings of how learning and teaching actually occur, any efforts to make edtech education’s silver bullet are doomed to fail.

The Inside Higher Ed article’s response to these assertions were summarised (again, I use a direct quote) as-

I had two reactions when reading The Rise of Educational Technology as a Sociocultural and Ideological Phenomenon.

The first was – this all makes good sense.  

The second was – I don’t actually know anybody working in the edtech field who believes any of this.

My own experience has very much been that studying e-learning technology has been a hugely constructive factor in consolidating and refining in me “more informed deep understandings of how learning and teaching actually occur“. There were many concepts that I implicitly understood before studying e-learning technology or that I more explicitly understood but had not contextually embedded in formal educational methodology. What I have become conscious of as an educator through learning about educational technology can perhaps best be alluded to through reference to two very inspiring books that I hugely recommend to anyone (How We Learn  and The End of Average).

EdTech is a sword with multiple edges. Those who tend to see EdTech largely as a vehicle of neoliberal ideological agendas (a notable example being Audrey Watters) present persuasive arguments. EdTech can certainly be used to serve such agendas, but it can also serve to challenge them.

A comparison can be made to open-source versus closed-source software models, but for EdTech products, the key issue is not whether software code is open or closed source (as very few educators are also software developers) but whether products are created and made available that extensively explore a diverse range of pedagogical approaches that mutually inform each other. The development of a pedagogically diverse EdTech ecology is a natural and expected consequence of a smaller, more ‘cottage industry’ EdTech sector more aimed at meeting individualised requirements. EdTech’s integration into institutionalised education presents major commercial opportunities to make large profits developing much more standardised products that can be sold to huge numbers of users with many different requirements. In this context it is not hard to see how concerns about neoliberal repurposing of EdTech arise.   

I see three main pathways leading from the current state of EdTech development and implementation.

The first pathway involves educators attempting to limit the role of EdTech in education by educators reducing their engagement with EdTech, with the aim of remaining more autonomous of the influence of commercial EdTech methodologies. This would represent educators re-asserting their professional status.

The second pathway (which could be where the first pathway leads to) is the ascendancy of commercial EdTech methodologies to the extent that educators at least partly become ‘EdTechnicians’, and in so doing experience a significant reduction in professional status and therefore in influence over pedagogical matters and educational policy generally.

The third pathway, like the first, represents a re-assertion of educators’ professional status, not by limiting the influence of EdTech methodology but by helping to define what that influence should be, through becoming EdTech developers (even if only at amateur levels) in order to develop products capable of competing with and influencing the design of more mainstream EdTech products that have been designed more to meet the demands of administrators than learners. Ideally, some sort of emergent EdTech product interoperability standards would be formed that were based on integrating the uses of existing (and future) EdTech products being shared by educator-developers.

The third pathway involves educators adopting entrepreneurial practices that may not be very compatible with and may actually conflict with existing public education practices in some cases, especially where public education planning has adopted a top-down, generic approach. Educator-developers might have to occupy a grey area in between supporting traditional public education models and alternatives that could not easily exist without a commercial element.