Reversals

Today I watched a news story about the XPRIZE. The XPRIZE website explains what XPRIZE does in clear and simple terms.

A $15 MILLION GLOBAL COMPETITION TO EMPOWER CHILDREN TO TAKE CONTROL OF THEIR OWN LEARNING

The Global Learning XPRIZE challenges teams from around the world to develop open source and scalable software that will enable children in developing countries to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic within 15 months. Once the 15-month field-testing phase concludes, the prize purse will be objectively awarded to the team that generates the best international standardized test scores within the group of participating children. Our goal is an empowered generation that will positively impact their communities, countries and the world.

Teams will compete in a multi-stage competition that test for specific criteria:

Ability to measurably increase the learning of children, with limited access to schooling, within the 15-month field-testing period.

Creation of a design that is easy to use and engaging for children, so they can operate it alone and/or in self-organized groups.

Creation of open source software that makes marked improvements to existing technology.

 

Many excellent ideas there- empowered learners, independent and self-organised groups of learners, and open source software (shame about the standardised testing part).

A similarly inspiring project is the One Laptop per Child project, which states that-

We aim to provide each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop. To this end, we have designed hardware, content and software for collaborative, joyful, and self-empowered learning. With access to this type of tool, children are engaged in their own education, and learn, share, and create together. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future.

These projects have been devised specifically for developing world socioeconomic conditions. The learning that these projects intend to deliver are extensively mobile learning based in order to compensate for a lack of physical school infrastructure. These projects are designed to operate without teachers for the same reason.

Readers of this blog will probably not be surprised that I consider the design aspects of these projects that attempt to dispense with the necessity for schools and teachers not merely to be make-do substitutions for school and teacher oriented education but potentially as features that could make these projects a model for a more effective form of education than a school and teacher oriented model could provide. I noticed that the XPRIZE story was mentioned in Hack Education Weekly News, where it was described as an example “ed tech imperialism”. If XPRIZE and the like are examples of imperialism then it seems to me that they are no more so imperialist than if schools were built instead. Such schools would no doubt be run along the lines of twentieth century educational institutional traditions. The end of this post discusses the idea that the growth of m-learning in the developing world could give rise to a kind of post-colonial educational methodology feedback that would involve a reversal of the established flow of practices from developed to developing world (Ivan Illych discussed this possibility in Deschooling Society). Such a reversal leads me to think of the arguments made by Alison Gopnik. A review in Nature of ‘Child development: A cognitive case for un-parenting’ mentions that

Gopnik reveals how the parenting model can affect how children explore. She describes a wide range of experiments showing that children learn less through “conscious and deliberate teaching” than through watching, listening and imitating. Among the K’iche’ Maya people of Guatemala, even very young children with little formal schooling can master difficult and dangerous adult skills — such as using a machete — by watching adults engaging in these tasks in slow and exaggerated fashion. In one of Gopnik’s own experiments using a “blicket detector” (a box that lights up and plays music when a certain combination of blocks is placed on it) four- and five-year-olds worked out that unusual combinations rather than individual blocks did the trick — and younger kids were more skilled than older ones at finding unlikely options.

Gopnik makes many references to pre-industrial educational practices of various cultures and argues for their effectiveness due to their deep compatibility with human developmental processes. My personal enthusiasm for EdTech derives from its potential to provide means of cheaply providing widely accessible learning opportunities more in tune with the rhythms of human growth than industrial educational models permit.  

How much though projects like XPRIZE are actually likely to represent improvements on more traditional educational programmes will be partly influenced by these programmes’ curricula. Basic literacy and numeracy are plausibly utilitarian content- unquestionably so in the developed world. In the developing world there may be other more utilitarian study options available. I have posted here before on the possible educational value of maker culture. In one such post I stated that “Amateur manufacturing is not (currently anyway) a realistic basis for meeting the material needs of the people of the world…”- at that point I perhaps should have specified that I was referring to the developed world rather than to places in the world where manufacturing (and various other forms of economic activity) are at most only semi-industrialised. In such places, education concerned with practical techniques for a range of locally relevant production and maintenance activities might be extremely valuable (as contexts for the teaching of literacy and numeracy if nothing else).   

It has occurred to me (as I alluded to earlier) that areas of the developing world with limited educational and industrial infrastructure could be in a position to leapfrog the twentieth century stage of development in education (and perhaps also in manufacturing), similarly to the way that the wire and cable based stage of telecommunications infrastructure was bypassed in some of the developing world, whereby most people that acquired mobile telephones had not done so to replace a landline telephone but simply to have a telephone at all in a place which lacked landline infrastructure. Interestingly, novel uses came to be made of mobile phones in such places to compensate for inadequate banking infrastructure by using prepaid phone cards as currency for remote transfers and it is not hard to imagine m-learning practices catching on easily in these places.

It might be that in the fairly near future the developed world could end up having lessons to learn on education from the developing world. 

 

 

 

Advertisements

All in all, you’re just a- nother node in the network (guitar solo)

What learners today seem to find so difficult is to combine different pieces of information that they are given with some kind of integrating purpose. Give typical contemporary learners an ensemble of information and a task that does not explicitly specify how it should be achieved (here, not explicitly defined task means tasks that exceeds the scope of an acyclic series of single-step processes for which no crucial information must be remembered or taken note of without having been instructed to take note of it) and the typical learner response tends to be ‘I see what the task says, but what do I do?’. What the learner is supposed to do is interpret the task. This is precisely what they struggle with.

What superficially seems to be the case is that learners lack a combinatorial fluency in some way that might plausibly be associated with inadequacy of attention span, as well as exhibiting a similar lack of efficacious fluency associated with depleted autonomy.

This diagnosis is questionable however when the capacity of contemporary learners to integrate information sources in informal learning is considered. The world now is tremendously complex and rich (and requiring of interpretation), to the point that simply navigating it at all requires a great deal of integration of information streams. Young people are highly active informal information stream integrators. Equally, young people now typically take great interest in their own autonomy and preferences and tend to be skeptical of authorities generally. 

These qualities of young people often fail to be at all evident when considering them as individuals, where the diagnosis of ‘poor attention span and weak autonomy’ is apparently the last word on the matter. Learners’ individual limitations should not be surprising however when it is understood that acting individually and unilaterally is an extremely alien mode of operation for today’s young person. This generation’s learners’ worldview is that of the network node, not of the self-sufficient individual.

Life as a network node is based around asynchronous collaboration with other network nodes. Asynchronous collaboration involves multiple agents working remotely to informally decide amongst themselves what actions to undertake, and doing so in a fashion that adapts to emergent network properties. This way of life represents a rational recognition of the efficiency gains of division of labour as well as the effectiveness gains that decentralised decision making can provide. These forms of behaviour are though almost the exact opposite of the forms appropriate for adapting to a setup in which individual agents are physically situated together but required to act individually and in isolation from each other, in response to an agenda that they had no significant part in selecting or influencing- the setup upon which twentieth century education is modelled. 

Trying to educate today’s learners in accordance with twentieth century educational systems and procedures and then being surprised at the ineffectiveness of the learners’ performance is to do something comparable with taking completely offline a computer that is running almost exclusively cloud based applications and then being surprised at how limited its functionality has become. Additionally, imagine that the computer is capable of allocating resources to the end of attempting to reconnect itself to its cloud networks- and indeed does everything it can to do just that (to the detriment of its capacity to do very much of anything else that it could conceivably do without cloud support).    

Educational institutions of today have two main options in responding to the problem of having a teaching model that does not fit its learners. The first response is to alter the model to better fit the learners by transforming the model into something essentially network based. The second response is to find ways to obscure the negative effects of the model-learner mismatch by modifying the model used so as to as far as is practically possible eliminate situations involving learners being required to genuinely interpret tasks (this being where the most noticeable symptoms of the model-learner mismatch are evident).

For the most part, educational institutions seem to have preferred the second option. Given the choice of implementing a complete paradigm change versus retaining the current paradigm but eliminating interpretation, the latter option is clearly the easier one to take. In a competitive educational environment, it is very risky for individual educational institutions to unilaterally and openly acknowledge the existence of major problems within themselves lest this simply mark them out as failing institutions. Bitterly ironically, the educational provision system tend to very much have a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset; a school acknowledging its mistakes is not seen an opportunity for that school’s growth but as evidence of that school not being viable and hence of the need to replace its management and/or staff, or even to close it down.  

Competitiveness incentivises schools to disguise rather than address structural problems in the short-term interests of schools. The effect of such occlusion is to pass on the schools’ structural problems to the learners that graduate from problem affected schools. Learners whose education evaded the difficulties of equipping them to interpret complex tasks proceed after graduation to face the challenge of finding employment opportunities that are highly likely to be dependent on applicants’ abilities to interpret complex tasks (this problem is elaborated on in this article in Inc).

What seems to be taking a long time for educational policy makers to recognise is that what is in the short-term interests of schools is basically unsustainable; the prevalence of network-orientation in learners that drives the educational model/learner mismatch is not a short-term phenomenon and it is only going to intensify in the future. Helping schools to protect their short-term interests at the cost of the long-term interests of their graduates cannot continue arbitrarily without incurring seriously damaging economic consequences in terms of unemployment, under-employment and the prevalence of low-skill/low-pay employment (in other words, general job insecurity). The prospect of increasing workplace automation rising to substantial levels in the near future threatens to greatly exacerbate this damage.

If you can’t say it and you can’t show it then you don’t know it

This was one of the two stock phrases that I used in teaching (the other one was ‘No one ever looked good making someone else look bad’, used in behaviour management). The point of ‘If you can’t say it and you can’t show it then you don’t know it’, was that I encountered a fair few learners who insisted that they knew one thing or another, despite being unable to answer questions or perform actions that demonstrated that knowledge. The knowledge that they had was some sort of private revelation that was not amenable to external scrutiny.

I have chanced to learn some intriguing things since my time in the classroom that make me think that there could after all be some truth to learners’ claims of private knowledge (although I think that the claim of such knowledge is generally an empty one). 

As an educator, my specialism is physics. Physics offers a variety of interesting ways to think about things, including about thinking.

The particular example of this that I am discussing here is quantum cognition.

Quantum cognition is the phenomenon of human decision making that is inconsistent with classical logic but is consistent with quantum mechanics. A well known example of this phenomenon involved asking students whether they would buy a ticket for a Hawaiian holiday, depending on whether

  • they had passed a big test.
  • they had failed the test.
  • they didn’t yet know whether they had passed or failed.

More than half said they would buy the ticket if they had passed. Even more than that said they would buy the ticket if they failed. Strangely though, 30 percent said they wouldn’t buy a ticket until they found out whether they had passed or failed.

This defies classical logic because if you would have some preference P if some condition C is true, and you have the same preference if C is false, then you should have the preference P whether C is true or false, whatever your current knowledge about the truth value of C. In quantum mechanics this does not lead to a contradiction however as quantum mechanics is based around operators that are non-commutative, meaning (A X B) ≠ (B X A); the order of these operations must be taken into account to find the result of them, so it is possible to have a situation where a preference can fail to exist because a question has not yet been asked where that preference would exist whatever the answer to the question was.

Quantum mechanics has been used to analyse the results of surveys where the order of pairs of ‘yes/no’ questions is reversed to see how switching the order of  the questions affects survey respondents’ answers to these questions. QM predicts not only that switching the order of question pairs should change what answers respondents give for them, but that the number of respondents who switch from answering both questions with ‘yes’ to answering both questions with ‘no’ when the order is switched should balance the number of respondents who do the opposite (switch from answering ‘no’ to both questions to answering ‘yes’ to both questions when the question order is reversed). Weirdly enough, this balancing is observed in survey results. No one yet understands why this is so.

What this implies (but falls far short of concluding) is that preferences are produced by the act of being asked questions about those preferences. The preferences apparently did not really exist before they were asked about. If we consider that preferences ought to be at least partly based on memories (we base our future expectations on our memories of the past) then the implication arises that memories are at least partially generated by the act of remembering!

To conjecture a bit further; preferences have dependencies with other preferences (the same is true of memories). Being asked a question that sets a preference/memory into a certain state therefore has knock on effects on other preferences/memories. If these dependencies also happen to work similarly to how QM does then some sets of preferences/memories could have complementary relationships with each other, meaning that determining the state of one of the complementary items would result in the state of the other complementary items becoming undetermined; knowing one thing clearly would mean that there would be something else that you couldn’t simultaneously know clearly.  

It seems to me that a complementarity principle of some sort (or something quantum-like at any rate) can be discerned in the process of learning. This phenomenon arises (I think) around the issue of the relationship between some knowledge (referred to for convenience as ‘k‘) that someone (referred to for convenience as ‘p‘) knows  and how it is known (by p or by someone else) that p knows whether or not they know k.

The basic idea is that whether or not p knows k is affected by asking p whether or not they know k. More specifically, asking p if they know k may reduce the extent to which they do know k. This may sound strange and far-fetched but I am arguing for this on the basis that asking p whether or not they knows k involves some sort of assessment process that the act of participation in alters how p perceives k. This argument rests on the principle (which I invoke here!) that just about any example of learning that a human can possess is decomposable in a variety of ways.

There are (in general) lots of different ways of knowing any particular thing, and the way that a learner knows a thing may be different to the way that someone assessing that learner’s knowledge knows that same thing (let’s call the knowledge again). If an assessor asks a learner questions (even indirectly) concerning k then those questions cannot help but influence the learner’s state of determination of some memories/preferences related to that k. If the assessor learned k in a different way than the learner did then the assessor’s questions could disrupt the learner’s state of determination of k.

QM terminology could be useful in explaining this situation. In QM, any measurement of the state of a system results in what is called the projection of the state of the measuring system onto the state of the measured system (this is a more technical way of stating the oft-repeated principle of QM that the act of observing a system changes that system). Using this sort of terminology, it would no longer be valid to speak of in itself but only of the projection of the assessor or learner on k. These projections can be denoted kassesor and klearner. When an assessor attempts to measure a learners knowledge of k, this results in a projection of kassesor onto klearner, which can be denoted kassesorklearner. This projection is different to klearner and may represent a less determined state of knowledge than klearner does.

Thinking in this sort of way, I speculate that two entities exist (they could be called variables, but that doesn’t do justice to how abstract and complex they are) that can have a complementary relationship to each other. These entities are ‘Whether learner knows k‘ and ‘What is’. Strange as it may sound, I am suggesting that it might be possible to say clearly whether a learner knew something but not be able to say clearly what it was they knew. Conversely, it might be possible to say clearly what a learner knew but not be able to say clearly whether or not they knew it. 

In practical terms, I would argue that these two entities need to be measured in distinctly different ways to try and minimise how complementary they are.

‘Whether learner knows k‘ should be measured in terms of some sort of minimally ambiguous outcome (perhaps a rather artificial one), and is more accurately expressed as ‘Whether learner can produce some outcome that has been assumed to be connected with knowledge of k‘. Only the outcome would be measured, the process by which the outcome was achieved would be a black-box to the assessor. Assessors could of course observe the process but their observations could not influence the determination of whether the outcome was or was not achieved.

‘What is’ would be measured not in terms of some outcome brought about by the learner but by how consistently successfully such outcomes were achieved by people other than that learner who were instructed by that learner in how to achieve the outcome. If a learner can consistently induce outcome achieving actions in others then some sort of shared construct must exist common to that learner and those whom they have instructed. Scrutinising different interpretations of this construct would go some way to establishing the characteristics of  k, especially in terms of how those constructs correlated with individuals’ ability to achieve outcomes. 

My speculations on this are, well, speculative. Intuitively I think that I am onto something and that learning will one day be understood to be more quantum than classical, and that what we learn is not our learning, but our learning exposed to our way of asking questions about what our learning is.

 

The curse of motivation

The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that educators are particularly vulnerable to. When you spend your working life explaining certain things, it becomes progressively harder to remember what it was like not to understand them. Your knowledge becomes ever more implicit and your learners’ failure to grasp what to you is simply ‘obvious’ becomes a barrier to effective communication of that knowledge.

The problems arising from the curse of knowledge are perhaps less severe than those arising from what should be called the ‘curse of motivation’.

Educators are inclined towards believing that formally learning things is desirable. If educators did not believe that formal learning was an inherently worthwhile undertaking then it would be hard to account for their choice to work as educators. This default attitude for educators is by no means necessarily closely related to the attitude of typical learners.

Design considerations pertaining to the learner engagement potential of learning content and learning objects are not likely to be appropriately handled if the designers’ have specific empathy deficits regarding learners’ motivation to engage with what is being designed.

A crucial factor involved in learners’ motivation to learn is their belief about whether of not they can learn.  A lot of awareness currently exists regarding fixed and growth mindsets. A fixed mindset is often described in mindset related literature to be associated with regarding intelligence as static rather than capable of development. Focusing mindset on attitudes towards intelligence is not necessarily very helpful for promoting the cause of the growth mindset. Intelligence in the sense of general intelligence g -as measured in IQ tests is not necessarily a highly mutable characteristic. What is far more clearly amenable to development is learners’ crystallised intelligence, which many learners might better recognise as experience.

Experience is something that is difficult to acquire quickly (other than by taking big risks). Anything that only occurs gradually has a precarious status in the minds of a lot of contemporary young learners, for whom ‘long‘ is a pejorative. Network technology has made very high speed communication so commonplace that anything that involves a significant degree of waiting carries with at a distinct whiff of obsolescence that relegates its perceived importance to near negligible levels. Furthermore, what is learned through experience can in many cases be learned fairly implicitly. When learners learn implicitly, they do not necessarily explicitly recognise that they have learned.

Learners tend to have unrepresentative views of what they do and do not know. This in turn affects what they tend to be curious about. People tend to be most curious about what is not too detached from what they already know. It follows from this that if learners were able to become more aware of what they did actually know, that should make them more curious about what else they might not have realised that they knew, or wanted to know. This has given me the idea for a learning tool that I would like to call a curiosity integrator (CI).

A CI works similarly to a decision engine (the part of a search engine that recommends things to you, such as when it auto-completes your search term inputs). The CI is an app that is synced to your social media and search engines to collect information about what you are interested in and hence what you probably know about. Either by data mining or by modelling human learners (or both), the CI can extrapolate from your interests (and the knowledge that this implies that you have) what you might know implicitly without knowing that you know. The CI also tracks what you have (probably) learned from experience.

The CI uses what it knows (and can infer) about you to deliver an unpredictably timed series of informal reflections on what you have learned and when, and how these things connect with each other in ways that probably had not occurred to you. The CI suggests what future activities that you might want to undertake could be facilitated by particular learning experiences and links you to appropriate resources for learning.

The point about the CI is that it has no agenda. It does not expect that you should or should not learn anything in particular, it merely attempts to help you to recognise that you know more than you think that you do, in the hope that you find that information encouraging.      

 

 

 

 

 

 

The accreditation crunch

Online credit recovery… it sounds like something to do with mis-sold insurance policies or a procedure for compensating victims of phishing scams. Well, there are certainly some accusations of ‘scammyness’ being directed at OCR (in terms of its pedagogical soundness).

So what is OCR then?

OCR is the process of learners retaking failed courses by doing online tests. In a way, this is hardly any different to ordinary online testing; the learners doing OCR necessarily failed tests on their first attempt- that’s the only formal difference.

In practice, OCR (as described in Slate) is online testing which has some pretty dubious qualifying characteristics- namely, testing software that

  • allows unlimited repeats at test answers.
  • repeats questions fairly predictably.
  • accepts answers pasted from the copy buffer, even when other browser windows are open.
  • is used with minimal or zero supervision. 

Testing software used like this might well be assessing learners’ knowledge about as effectively as the hypothetical Chinese Room assesses its occupant’s understanding of Chinese (for those unfamiliar with the Chinese Room argument, see below).

chiroo.jpg

The premise of the Chinese Room argument is that the person in the room is following a combinatoric list of instructions concerning some shapes that are ostensibly meaningless to them. Observers outside the room that see only the inputs to and outputs from the room can however apparently legitimately conclude that the room speaks Chinese.  

Learners completing courses using OCR differ somewhat from the Chinese Room in that the Chinese Room involves only exact input-output functions (presumably in the book in the room there is a page that says “If you see any sequence of shapes not listed on any of the other pages then do not produce any shapes”). The OCR learner is less reliable and may give incorrect outputs before finding the correct ones by a process of elimination (they are a probabilistic-iterative Chinese Room). 

OCR honestly does not surprise me very much though. While I was teaching for a living, my job was in the further education sector. This sector was post-compulsory in nature and the culture of learning there was something of a grey area in-between that of school and higher education where a substantial portion of the learners were re-taking courses. As part of the job I was sometimes involved in school links projects, where I experienced up close the differences between the practices of further and secondary education. What I witnessed was a preponderance in secondary education of what I would call ‘transcription based learning’ (TBL). TBL primarily involves learners first being given hard copies of some learning content that mainly consists of a discrete set of items of information and then rewriting/paraphrasing these items of information in a different order into a largely blank container document (largely blank- some of the container might be pre-filled as a way to model the filling process). TBL can easily be used as ostensible evidence of learning as TBL materials provide a very convenient ‘before’ and ‘after’ states, demonstrating that learners have translated/rearranged information (the unstated implication being that they did so independently rather than imitatively).  

TBL and OCR clearly represent a kind of debasement of the currency of learning (by which I mean accreditation for courses). Such a debasement is reminiscent of concerns over grade inflation (as implied in this data:source).

gradeinflation.jpg

These steadily improving results for 16+ learners in the UK cover much of the same timescale over which, according to PISA scores (taken by 15 year-old learners), the UK has had consistently falling results in mathematics, reading and science.

PISA

It seems incongruous to say the least that learners’ performance at age fifteen has been dropping at the same time that it has been climbing for learners aged sixteen and over.

Educational progression is for the most part intranational, hence the debasement of educational currency at one stage of progression within one country can be accommodated at other stages in order to maintain consistency. Such debasement is therefore only necessarily evident when comparisons are made against standards derived from either other countries education systems or from outside of education systems (such as from employers).

It is above all where the utility of education is measured against employability (most obviously in terms of additional earning power resulting from gaining qualifications) that evidence for debasement is easiest to detect. The point at which the additional earning power provided by qualifications falls below the cost of studying for those qualifications is the point at which the purchaser of education notices debasement of qualifications. More accurately, this applies when education is purchased individually. The cost versus value determination of education as a publicly funded good is not noticed anywhere near as easily as it is by a single individual deciding whether or not to pay for tuition for the simple reason that in the individual case clear comparisons can be made between cases of those people who have and have not taken the option to purchase education beyond that which is compulsorily provided. Education as a public good is for the most part compulsory. Everyone partakes of it. When everyone uses a service it ceases to be easy to say what would have happened to those that did not use it. Obviously, post-compulsory publicly funded education in the form of subsidised higher education has existed in various countries at different times, but has tended to do so less problematically where access to higher education has been restricted not by ability to pay but by difficulty of obtaining the requisite entry qualification grades and where adequate provision of alternative forms of learning (such as work based training) exist.

The effects of an accreditation crunch on the value of qualifications is in some ways analogous to the effects of a credit crunch (a la 2008) on the values of financial institutions’ assets. In 2008, when the reality of the extent of bad debts that had held good credit ratings became clear, exposed financial institutions massively curtailed lending to each other and in the worst cases could not meet their financial obligations; eventually the worst affected businesses either went bankrupt or received government bailouts. 

An educational meltdown to match the 2008 financial meltdown would start with a widespread acknowledgement that many educational qualifications had become seriously devalued. This acknowledgement would result in many educational institutions ceasing to accept each others’ qualifications as valid entry criteria. Quite soon after that, many educational institutions would be unable to find enough suitably qualified fee-paying students to cover the cost of maintaining their current capacities, so would have to either sell-off or otherwise dispose of many of their assets. Educational institutions might instead start calling for taxpayer bailouts to keep them operational while accreditation mechanisms were reformed.

It can be argued that an accreditation crunch has in fact been happening, and for some time, and much more gradually than the 2008 credit crunch happened. Taxpayers have not had to make a vast short-term bailout in response to an imminent crisis of unmistakable proportions but have rather spread out such a bailout over many years by continually subsidising a devalued education sector in order to obscure acknowledgement that devaluation of qualifications was occurring. The severity of the accreditation crunch is probably much less than of the credit crunch partly because the value of educational qualifications are not as amenable to leveraging as is the case with financial products- paper money can have imaginary value much more easily than paper credentials; the credentials are at least attached to a human being whose qualities cannot be as readily ignored as can those of a faceless and impersonal corporate entity.   

Crisitunity knocks

In a recent EdSurge article, Julia Freeland Fisher, the Director of Education Research at the Clayton Christensen Institute wrote (as ever, my emphases)-

Education innovators love to talk about adoption curves. It’s a fancy way of looking at a pretty basic concept: the rate at which a given tool, model or approach saturates a market.

Lately, I’ve been seeing these curves crop up a lot in the conversation about personalised learning. As more school systems attempt to customise learning environments and more education advocates and funders champion personalised models, people are increasingly anxious to know: At what rate might we expect new ideas and tools to permeate the traditional school system?

But not all adoption curves are created equal. Depending on the features of the tools and their intended users, the arc of adoption might look vastly different. One of those distinctions hinges on the degree to which a new tool or model conforms to the traditional school structure.

What Fisher means by a traditional school structure corresponds to what I have referred to in other posts (mainly this one) as a closed pedagogy. Such traditional structures tend to be self-perpetuating and resistant to change, and apparently regardless of their effectiveness. If traditional structures’ effectiveness becomes excessively compromised though then these structures must finally undergo some sort of crisis. From the perspective of alternatives to these traditional structures, such crises represent opportunities.

I think that I have observed the beginnings of at least part of the pattern of the decisive crisis of traditional educational structures. In this post I have assembled some fragments of this pattern that are suggestive of the pattern in general.

In the UK and the USA (not only in these places, but rather prominently in them), public education funding is starting to see real cuts in per-learner spending, even at the level of compulsory education. Weakening traditional educational structures by under-funding them does not necessarily make these structures less dominant, only less effective. However, some media reports suggest the emergence of changes that seem to reduce the extent to which traditional structures automatically crowd out alternatives.   

One story tells of fund-starved schools adopting four day weeks, another of such schools shortening their working day. If these measures (and extensions of them) come to pass, eventually a point will be reached at which the acceptance of public schooling as the default educational route followed by the great mass of learners will no longer be so easily assumed. Parents would have to contend with schools not being places that their children would be able to go in parallel with as many of those parents’ working hours as had previously been the case. A non-trivial part of those children’s weekly routines would start to require some sort of parental planning. It does not seem far-fetched to me that parents would become increasingly minded to start to contemplate what options existed for enabling their children’s home based learning, and that the options so researched would conceivably have markedly different adoption arcs to those compatible with traditional school structures.

While working parents would of course legally be required to ensure the supervision of their children alongside their education, in practice it might transpire that some combination of mobile communications with children and automated supervision-assisting gadgets of various kinds, supplemented  by some sort of formal or informal emergency supervising visit-on-demand cover service, there could be a popular re-appraisal of how independently safe children left in their homes could be expected to be. If this re-evaluation happens then it might be a step in the direction of increasing children’s early exposure to self-efficacy and resilience promoting circumstances (the decline of which I discussed in another post).       

As well as less public school hours being available, schools that continued to remain open much of the time might not necessarily be equally available to all students. I noticed this story regarding an academy school that had attracted negative attention for offering/encouraging some of its students to undertake Elective Home Education (EHE) rather than study at the school in person. The school in question seems to have acted opportunistically in allowing the EHE cases that it did, apparently doing so to keep certain students out of the school that were not helping the smooth running of the school. How much this policy should be seen as dereliction of duty by the school depends considerably on how effective its EHE provision is and also on whether students are taking up EHE as a matter of preference rather than as a way of avoiding problems in the school that, were those problems to be solved, would mean that those students would prefer to remain in school. The general principle that students who for one reason or another are not being best served by attending a school could have the option of learning outside of a school does not seem to me a necessarily flawed one. Why should some learners (perhaps even many of them) not prefer to learn outside of a school if such a learning environment was more conducive to their learning?   

Where these stories are published they are presented in no uncertain terms as portents of crisis- as negatives with no associated positives. Another similar story is that of the teacher recruitment/retention crisis. I was personally involved in this trend, to the extent that if it did not exist I would still be teaching full time, only very peripherally concerned with EdTech, and certainly not writing this blog. I certainly have an axe to grind about the protracted deskilling and deprofessionalisation of educators that has accompanied the ascent of managerial culture in the state education system, but at the same time I recognise that educators themselves constitute an aspect of the traditional educational structures that determine the adoption arcs of various EdTech developments.

I have posted before that educators have an underutilised potential to redefine their roles in educational structures (becoming more ‘intrapreneurial’), but in general it seems that most teachers have identified with traditional educational structures as part of a stance of defending the continued provision of education as a public good, correctly recognising that it is under attack. The crisis of teacher recruitment/retention has the expected effects of removing experienced teachers from the teaching community and making their replacements those with less commitment to established teaching methodologies. I have termed such a new breed of less qualified, less formally educated, less unionised and lower-paid education workers as ‘EdTechnicians’ rather than educators. EdTechnicians may have more potential affinity with the educational affordances of various technologies than more traditional educators if they see a substantial aspect of their work as being the implementation of EdTech systems.

As well as changes in compulsory education, higher education is experiencing a crisis that contains opportunities. The crisis in HE has two main aspects; financial and credential.

The financial aspect is highlighted by the recent observation that a higher average return on investment can currently be achieved by investing tuition fees in a stock-market tracking fund than would be gained by the career-enhancing effects of achieving a degree (although presumably this says as much about the overvaluation of shares as it does about graduate employment prospects).

The credential related crisis in HE is illustrated by the decisions made by the firms of Ernst & Young and also by PriceWaterhouseCoopers to cease relying on degree classifications and pre-university qualification grades when recruiting in favour of internally defined and assessed standards. The tendency for employers to find that the standards defined by awarding and examining bodies are of little vocational applicability is likely to accelerate the more that such bodies focus on what can be measured by standardised testing and tied in to the teaching and assessment products supplied by corporations with links to such bodies.

The combined effect of financial and credential concerns are likely to have had something to do with the fact that applications to university from domestic applicants in 2017 fell by 5%. College applications in the USA have been falling since 2010.

Alternatives to traditional higher education structures seem to have developed more than for compulsory education. This is hardly surprising given that compulsory education is mandatory and higher education is elective. Interesting alternative models have appeared that are based on internship rather than formal study, such as Praxis and Galvanize. The ‘bootcamp’ model has also become increasingly common, which in one rather extraordinary case is provided without charge (by the university called simply 42). Praxis, Galvanise and 42 are notable in how much they emphasise learner resilience, real-world problem solving, and collaborative practice. Graduates of these processes’ credentials are ultimately what they have done, and what they have chosen to do, during their involvement in the process. The learning that occurred in these processes was not so much preparation for employment but practice at effective working. Translating this shift in priorities to lower levels of education clearly involves greater levels of resistance by traditional educational structures, but the crises of those structures may be what leads to the collapse of that resistance.