One of the most common keynotes you see these days at educational conferences is the one about how technology will transform the future of higher education. Filled with assertions of the next big thing to emerge from the wilderness and riffing off songbooks of transformation such as the Horizon report, this model keynote usually makes the damning conclusion that education won’t look the same in 2030 as it does today. This is the keynote that a lot of people love to hear. It is vapourware. It makes promises that no-one needs to keep. We all know AI will transform education. Imagine, VR goggles in every classroom, the teacher feeding students with terabytes of virtual data that they think they need, the students wowing in awe and thanking the teacher for the experience. Imagine that! And that is all you need to do, imagine it. Because it will never happen. These assertions about technology (and Horizon is one of the worst culprits) are vapourware. They are like reading a new year’s prediction article in the Daily Mail on the 31st December. Sure, it can be entertaining. It can trigger fantasy, both positive and scary. Some of the predictions might even have a ring of truth. But, they are written to maintain the dominant order as in seen by the Mail (would the Mail ever predict the election of a leader like Macron or that Jeremy Corbyn will displace the Maybot or that Brexit won’t happen). They are also written to be safe, because this kind of prediction is nothing more than a game. It is a safe because there is nothing to be held accountable to. But it also provides you with a safe excuse to convince yourself and others that you are not wedded to the past and that you are looking to the future. Asserting that the future of higher education is digital and by 2025 MOOCs will be ruling the earth doesn’t mean you NEED do anything about it. It either doesn’t happen and you keep teaching the way you always have (winner, winner) or you can say that in 2017 you knew all along where education was heading (winner! ahead of the crowd). By engaging with the menu of digital futures that sound great (adaptive learning! AI!! learning analytics!!!) you can avoid addressing the real questions. You never need to engage in real curriculum level change. You don’t have think about learning styles, different forms of delivery, the experience of your learners. You can quite happily overlay your rusted-on practices, the dominant teacher/student paradigm and the inherent power that comes with it on any imagined technological intervention or vendor created problem. You can also be the one in the privileged position of deciding what you will ‘allow’ the student to use or what technology they can be trusted with.
This post is not about any specific keynote, but represents a series of panels, conferences, workshops and interventions over the last few months. Many of these located the student as the receptor of the innovations ‘we’ enunciated and implemented. Many used vendor PR to spin the future. They blurred the lines between who higher education is for, ascribing technology as the instrument of bloody transformation and avoided the notion of education as a public or societal good. Below are some of the tweets I shared during these presentatiions, with some additional commentary that twitter doesn’t afford me in its expanded 240 characters world.
One of the consistent messages about the future of HE in these keynotes is that vendors provide the solution. This is demonstrated through showing vendor videos that assert the future of education lies in the framework of technology they offer. This one below from Dell is the perfect example.
They don’t sell any of their products, they are selling (in highly amorphous terms) a solution to a problem that they assert you MUST know exists. And they are your partner in solving this problem. A vendor is not there to participate in education. A vendor is selling a product, often one that is not designed for education, but is being cross-sold. All good marketing is based on a simple fact. A drill retailer does not sell quarter inch drill bits, they sell quarter inch holes. Vendors are creating problems for which their product appears to be the perfect fit. But who tells them about these problems? Who is making the case the VLE needs to be more agile and democratic. Certainly, not our students. When we asked them, they told us they love Moodle. They want academics to use it more. One even asserted they were happy for their fees to pay for Moodle. Yet, they wouldn’t be a day go by that someone pitches the next agile future of learning technology driven 21st century innovative VLE/LMS.
One of the (un)intended consequences of the marketization of education is the equivalence of voice given to corporate partnerships which have enabled vendors to move from service provider to participant in the education process. Education practices become branded instruments, conversations result in brand endorsements. The risk we fear is that vendors get to the CIO, the COO or the VC and dazzle them with the name of leading adopters resulting in their technology getting ‘done’ to the rest of the institution, top down. But educational technologists are not innocent in this scenario. We can get blinded by the latest technology, wanting to keep ahead of the crowd, sometimes we can be bought by swag and promises, or the fear that if we don’t know about it we might look foolish when the leadership asks our opinion. We need to be in the room when the problem is defined. We need to draw in voices and insights from the entire community and be a hub for them. And then we talk to vendors, or we make it ourselves. And we hold them to account. They are not partners, we are buying a service from them. If they can’t solve our problem, we don’t change what we do to suit them. We find someone else who can.
Another common assertion in these types of keynotes is that ‘we’ know what is best for students. We understand them and why they behave the way they do. So, this assumption is a good example. Students don’t read emails (ignoring that staff don’t read them either according to most published data). We need better ways to communicate with students. We need WhatsApp, we need Snapchat, we should be in Instagram because that’s where they are sharing their selfies. You know what we really need? We need to have better messages. I get about 100 emails a day. Over 50% of those are vendors and unsolicited emails from service providers. Manage security! Move to cloud storage!! How is your stack? They see the word technology in my title and bombard me with messages irrelevant to what I do. Make the message relevant, useful and purposeful, then it doesn’t matter whether it is on email, pigeon or social media, people will find it and read, and perhaps even respond to it. Learning is social. Sending a broadcast email that is no interest to anyone other than you is bound to be ignored, in the same way the 250 introductory messages in the first week of a discussion forum (hi, I’m Peter and I am really looking forward to learning about underwater basket weaving) result in 250 people sitting there waiting for a reply and no one actually answering.
Finally, these keynotes make grand, tweetable assertions of the world of education in 2020, 2030, 2050. The critical question for me is who owns this future? One of the critical insights from the Future Happens workshops run by Dave White, Donna Lanclos and myself is that many educational technologists, designers and developers as well as academics believe they don’t have a say in the future of higher education. There is an acceptance that much of the future is decided for us, by policy, by the institution, by competition or by the momentum and culture of the sector more generally. This can range from a passive acceptance to change, a sense of resignation of powerlessness to influence the change or righteous anger vented at all and everything around them.
At the heart of this issue is assertion that technology will continue the progress of education as a transaction. Pathways to employment, boxes of skills for employers, patents and intellectual property coming from making and doing. Experiencing education in this environment becomes value added, meaning a tension arises between what can be afforded and what is necessary. Experience is a value proposition traded off against the expediency of completion. Technology has become the instrument to affect this trade off. One keynote recently asserted that students don’t want to watch three hour lectures, they prefer to watch the lecture recording at double speed. In this example (which we have also heard from teachers at other institutions) there is a simple trade off, time vs consumption. It assumes all lectures are consumption. Good teaching is not a consumptive or broadcasted act. Many of the technology platforms being offered to universities however do just that. They package education ‘content’ and offer ways to multiple and massify it, promising economies of scale through media sharing, social media like VLEs, online examinations and generic content.
Where does this leave us? I can find dozens of keynotes, conferences and webpages promising an insight into the future. But to conclude this, I want to look to the past (and hopefully the present) to get an eye on the future. At its heart, a successful university is a community. A critical community of students, teachers, staff, alumni and partners. Communities need leaders, they need innovators, they need advocates, they need citizens and they need members. Communities share values but they disagree and argue for what those values are and how they evolve and are applied. These debates make communities better. Communities come together to apply tools to problems, sharing and swapping expertise and experience to enhance how we use those tools, or invent new ones. No-one should be able to buy a community. The successful future for higher education is one where the community leads the organisation. Participatory citizenship. In terms of education and technology we need to lead that debate, be the people that bring the community together, critically challenge the assertions of people who want to own the community and convince it spend their hard-earned cash on a newer, brighter proprietary widget for the future. These communities don’t have to be non-profit or altruistic and that is also fine. Well run communities can make money (look at the retailer John Lewis in the UK which is owned by its staff). One of the key ambitions of #futurehappens is that we bring people together to empower and increase the literacy and capability of people to be the catalyst for these communities in their own organisation. Maybe it helps to say, well over 100 institutions came together and they all said the same things, or maybe it promotes and encourages self-belief. In the end, when we hear these talks about the future of education, the future of employment, the myths of robo-replacement and massification of education through technology, we need to have a counter-argument. Evidence based, persuasive and critical ambitions for our institution, built on the engagement with community. We need to describe and understand the wicked and messy problems in front of us, and we need to be able to apply the skills and experiences we have learnt and that we teach to come up with innovative, amazing and completely original ways to solve them. We don’t need the answers, we need to ask the questions.
Note: This blog post is the early part of bringing the innovations and idea together from our Future Happens workshops ran in Liverpool, Toowoomba and Berlin. Stay tuned.