It doesn’t matter what is in your hands – Reprise: Challenging the learning of the future

So, this is a reprise of my last post, written in late September.


Jisc have just launched a co-design challenge (#codesign16) looking at what should the next generation of digital learning environments do. There are a number of key assumptions that keen readers of this blog might suspect I will take issue with; should we even be talking about learning environments for a starter. As learning technologists, academics or educational developers, why do we keep talking about the box of tricks as the on-going ticket to educational success? There are a number of much prescient articles about the future of the VLE (Louis Pugilese wrote a nice thought piece on a demand side VLE a few years back HERE and Martin Weller’s 2007 dystopian future ‘The VLE/LMS is dead’. But for me, the debate about what comes next, what does the VLE of the future look like or whether it is cloud or server based is like a drowning man arguing about the political position that his rescuer has on the issue of Brexit (and deciding that drowning is better than jumping in a boat with Nigel Farage).

What we should be talking about is far more fundamental than all of that. In 2014, I wrote a blog post about some the polarising factors that are in fact paralyzing our sector, preventing us from change, supporting entrenched positions of resistance and not affording us the opportunity to truly interrogate why the hell we are educating in the first place. This was not a baby out with the bathwater argument, nor was it the call to smash it all down and start again;

He argued that the modern university needed to prepare itself for a raft of changes that represented substantial changes that arise primarily from the technologies of today. There is a clear disconnect between the pace of technological change, the use of technologies by our learners and the pace in which institutions can change and adapt to both of those. I think we have been successful in winning the battles of large scale institutional systems as a means of embedding learning technology. The difference in the post-digital age is that now, these platforms and tools don’t have to be firewalled behemoths of yore. They are lean, agile, accessible and most of all, social. There isn’t a single institutional ‘out of the box’ solution that we can get the institution to invest in. There are micro platforms, single purpose aggregations of tools, agile new start-ups and the continued predominance of a digital backpack hosted and stored in the cloud.

As a sector, we need to move away from our systems mind set and into one that creates the conditions for agility, creativity and innovation. The effort should not be on shaping the systems to be ready for 2025, it should be shaping the institution to be able to adapt to whatever is thrown at it. If we went back to 2005 and asked the institution to prepare itself for 2015, what would we have told it? What has happened in the intervening years that we could have never predicted? Funnily enough, it’s the stuff we are still trying to ways to adapt to now. Social media! Participatory culture! Digital Citizenship!  (from the post ‘We could ride the surf together – Polarisation and power of riding the wave and not staying in front of it’)



We don’t know what we don’t know. Prediction is a mugs game for sure. The Jisc challenge here was two-fold;

1. are current systems meeting the needs of our institutions,
2. and is it time to think about the next generation of learning environments?

My question is a different one; are the current systems meeting the needs of learning? Our institutions rise and fall on that question. The one thing we have over and above informal learning, community learning, micro-learning and all the other wolves at the door is that we accredit and certify. The value of that certification comes from the people who get it pinned to their chests. If what we offer stops meeting their needs, then we stop being relevant. The next generation of learning environment must tangle with the provocative and frankly difficult question of what learning actually is. My last post looked at good teaching, and why that was important in the digital age, and in the face of claims that technology courrupts good learning practices. It argued that god teaching was system/OS/box agnostic and that what made teaching ‘good’ was essentially intrinsic and human. One of the controversial interpretations of is that advocated that good teaching as it was human could only happen in ‘real life’. It doesn’t matter what the future learning environment is, the first question is what is the future of learning going to look going to look like? Are we the right people to be a part of it? This is not a clarion call for the heaving morass who argue the age of the expert is dead. Expertise is not a pejorative term FFS. Experts fix things, make things better, cure things, understand things and share things. But we do have to ask ourselves the tough questions; should we be involved in our our students learning? What kind of learning do they need/want/have no idea about yet?

Any learning environment of the future needs to be shaped and understood with at least some interrogwtion of those questions. Gutierrez in 2014 made a broad attempt to answer these questions by saying that learning is changing in four ways;

From Individual to Collaborative Learning
From Passive to Active Learning
The Rise of Differentiated Instruction
The Phenomenon of Multi-tasking

If we assume that this is what learning is in 2020 (which is a giant leap) how would the learning environment we would need to start developing now adapt to these changes, which are no hypothetical or fictitious, they are happening in our institutions now. How can a VLE be made to support active learning; can it be hacked, can it be bent? One of the biggest arguments in the ‘VLE is dead’ saga a few years back was the rise of adaptive and predictive technologies. You know, the ones that Amazon use to tell you which books or music you should buy next. Imagine (we were told) what a VLE could do if it were to become adaptive -after removing the rise of the Apes from your brain (and stopped screaming ‘“YOU BLEW IT UP! AH, DAMN YOU! GOD DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!’ at the small snow globe of the statue of liberty you have on your desk), take a deep breath. What is it adapting to? Learning is a crooked, messy, chaotic and non-linear pathway through living.  It doesn’t matter where it happens, on what box or within which four august walls.  It matters that we understand why people learn.  It matters we know why we should be part of it and it matters how the learning is used.  And all of that, as it has done for centuries is changing.  Sure, technology is part of the reason, but not the whole of the reason.  Our needs, desire, passions and pains to learn are changing.  Survival is an entirely different beast when you are not facing the 22 foot gleaming teeth of a giant angry pre-historic badger.  How we survive and what we are surviving is different, so how and what we learn to survive must be as well.


So, let’s start the debate with an open blue sky of thought.  It shouldn’t be never-ending or ponderous.  It is not a left-wing rant nor is it an affordance or a luxury that we can’t afford.  We have to ask ourselves, our friends and colleagues and our leaders the question ‘What is the next generation of learning?’ As I ask in the earlier blog post, what will our 2025 selves tell us about what we should have prepared for?  And most importantly, we need to ground that in some thinking, exploring and evidence, then we will know exactly how we will design the environments that the learning of the future will sit in.

It doesn’t matter what is in your hands


Some strange things seem to be happening in the learning technology and T&L debates at the moment. There appears to be a growing presence of an anti-tech resistance, challenging the efficacy of technology (and those who use it). Some of these ‘think pieces’ question the motivations of those using technology in their class (both students and teachers), demean the status of social media as an active and fertile ground for intellectual debate, try and institute blanket bans for the good of the learner and actively argue that we need to ‘get back to chalk’. These have become battle lines in a fake war between protectors and challengers, defenders of the faith versus the barbarians at the gate. The innocent victims in all this posturing and puffery are the engaged teachers and learners (thanks @antonycoombsHE for the input). We can see the small bubbles of evidence for this assertion increasingly breaking through to the surface Let’s take Facebook as the canary in the coal mine;

  • There are universities who ban Facebook from fixed PCs in labs and student spaces (on the suggestion of other students, apparently)
  • The continued resistance (and active calls to ban) the use of student devices in lectures and tutorials, because of the assertion that ‘they will just be checking their Facebook’
  • On the other hand, a lot of Facebook led pilots at a delivery or curricula level have failed because students don’t like ‘their’ Facebook being hijacked for learning (although there is a lot of evidence that they are stopping using Facebook entirely, or use it to talk to each other, not the teacher!)
  • Universities wanting to hold some sway of what their staff say on social media to present a unanimity of opinion (including Facebook).


In the end, these are pointless battles in an entirely distracting conflict.  We are arguing about the toss and not about the game. It doesn’t matter what devices are in their hands. What matters most is good teaching. Does it matter that you have a pair of red shoes on? No. What matters is that they make you feel good. It matters that they help people identify or find you. It matters that they stop that puddle you stepped in from making your socks a squidgy mess. What matters is the experiences that people participate in. Good teaching at its heart is the creation and facilitation of experience. There is an old marketing truism that I have always found insightful. People don’t buy ¼ inch drill bits, they but ¼ inch holes. Good teaching is not the fact that someone has a MacBook open or that you have created a PowerPoint slide or even that you have knowledge that you believe someone else needs to become an expert. Good teaching creates environments and conditions for learning experiences to happen. And the creation and nourishment of any experience is a product of a complex interplay of environmental factors. Good teachers hold and move the faders on those factors in order to achieve some form of synergy. Technology is without doubt one of those factors but by itself is like breathing only the nitrogen part of the air.


Good teaching is device/platform/OS agnostic
The kind of devices that people use or the sometimes desperate need to find a use for a piece of technology in teaching (Pokémon GO, it is the new Snapchat) become the easier conversations to have, especially amongst learning technologists and educational developers. Yes, the type of technology being used can and does influence the experiences people learn from. And yes, if the technology doesn’t work it can impact on that experience as well. And yes again, maybe a new platform or social media will seed good ideas and promote innovation. None of these assertions are wrong. But (and there is always a but), by themselves they are the less confronting conversation to have, because they are ignoring the elephant in the room. Good teaching is a hard thing to do. Good teaching is a challenging and emotionally draining thing to do. Good teaching lifts you high and can smack you down, sometimes in the space of a single class. Good teaching sees devices and uses them when they can contribute or challenge or transform what you are trying to do in your class.


Denial is not an instrument of good teaching
Making someone turn a device off in order to help them learn is not a critical approach to teaching. I used to work with a teacher who brought a bucket of water into his classroom and said ‘if I hear a phone go off, it goes into the water’. Why have we become so afraid of a phone? Sure, you may want a debate or discussion that asks people to engage, visually and actively. But what kind of learning can devices help with? Learning about how people learn. So, what actually goes on behind that sea of glowing white apples you see in your lecture? Have they all got Facebook open? Probably. Are they chatting with their mates? Yeah. Are they looking up words and definitions on Wikipedia? Almost certainly. How about providing them with a backchannel for conversation using a twitter hashtag, so that you can answer questions. How about providing them with a list of sites where they can check up definitions of words that match the kind of materials you use. Denial just leads to resistance and rebellion. Nothing good will come of it.


Good teaching is enabled by good communications. Technology changes the way we communicate
I am not describing all technology as simply instrumental tools, without power to influence good teaching. The way technology is used to collaborate, share, critique, engage (this list is endless) shapes the way we communicate. Creativity is democratised. Identity is fluid. Spaces are safe and dangerous. Risk is minimised and multiplied. People learn differently. To ignore social media and its transformative community of practices would be a dangerous ignorance. That doesn’t mean we have to all communicate through twitter in 140 characters, nor does it mean that crowdsourcing and Yelp recommendations will replace academic knowledge as the purest form of thought.  But it is in those very defences against using technology that one of the most fundamental tensions in higher education lies; you are either with us or against us. It is a polarised debate, with no middle ground and a series of entrenched positions backed with rigid institutional structures and policies and with all the risk dumped heavily on the shoulders of students.  If they choose to deny themselves the use of technology to live their lives, will that help them pass? How strong is the gravitational pull of a 2:1? Does the view of Professor Dr Jones requiring them to only use printed book sources for their essay outweigh their need for employable skills? So, how do they respond? They tell us to use our technology better; we want better PowerPoints, we want the VLE to do stuff to help us learn. And when we can be left on our own to study and prepare and learn (like we are for 90% of our HE experience), we will do things our way. We will use social media, we will chat with each other using whatever apps we like, we will share cool stuff and be visual and we will communicate and engage with people all over the world sharing knowledge, experiences and expertise. Because that is what we do. That is how we communicate and live our lives.

It doesn’t matter what is in their hands, it will be there and it will be used. It is none of our concern whether it is in their hands or not. Knowing it is in their hands empowers both them and us to make better learning experiences.



Title image from

Fader image


A design for learning: My ALT-C presentation in a nutshell


It is not a simple thing really; making education in a post-digital world.  How do we design for learning in this environment? Do we assume that nothing has changed, and the computers, devices and Pokémon Go are a distraction from the august and Socratic process of education?  Do we seek to embed in concrete the processes and practices of higher education and see them as immutable laws that will never change?  Or do we think critically about how all of this is not the same as it was before, mixed up, shaken out, broken down and reinvented.  The purpose of my presentation at this year’s ALT-C was to look at how learning has changed and how we need to change the way we design learning in the modern university.
At the heart of this design process was the challenge for learning technologists, educational developers and teachers to stop arguing about the efficacy or relevance of old and new technology.  It is an argument with no winners.  It sets up the easy farce of techno-solutionism vs defending the norm.  It creates entrenched positions of defence and attack, where one ‘side’ is seen as wanting to tear the other down.  But perhaps worse, talking about the technology is stopping us talking about what is more important, which is the difference between old and new learning, because it is this that is already transforming disciplines five and six times whilst we argue about our VLE. 
So how do we change this? How do we move it on?  If you have read this blog before you might have seen the posts around learning experiences from earlier this year.  Learning experiences are what Knowles describes as the connective tissue and sinew of education (with knowledge, skills, teaching and learning as the rest of the body).  We learn through experience; the abstract can only take us so far.  Whether it is environmental, tactile, mental, affective, emotional or physical, learning experiences are the context in which learning and knowledge come together. Learning experiences are the art and design component of curriculum development. They are intrinsic and personal. But here is the best bit, we all know how to have them. We all know the experience of making something. We know what we have learnt from making, and we know where to find the knowledge and skills required in order to make. We have made something with our dad or mum, we have made stuff with our own kids. All we need to know first is WHAT to make. Technology has changed the process, the practices and the accessibility of making. I can make music with an app (not an accordion), I can make my own media with a device (not a studio) and I can share that making with the world, for critique, for love, for fame or simply to release myself in order to make the next. This is how we contextualize learning experiences in a post-digital world.

An aside: What do I mean by a ‘post-digital world’? This is a contrary term, perhaps used a bit too often to mean something it isn’t, or as a convenient mark to signal the end of an arbitrary era. For me, post-digital means the point where we stop talking about potential and starting dealing with the fact that it has happened. Technology has normalized, how it is used has normalized and the things that happen in our lives happen not because of the technology, they happen because of people.

So, the short version of the presentation is that as learning technologists, teachers, learners and practitioners we have won. We run the largest learning space in the university, we own systems that have transformed the learning experience and there is no going back, the genie is out the bottle. We have made a difference. But what next? We have these monolithic infrastructure beasts that in the main are not being used to their full potential (the VLE distributing slides, handouts and making announcements?). What do we offer to the institution to help shape the experiences of our learners? The workshop asked participants to take existing learning technology tools (the VLE, Lecture Capture, PRS, plagiarism detection, a classroom etc) and break them. Bend them out of shape, hack them, crack them, remix and rebuild them to be the building blocks of creating and making learning experiences. How do we use the VLE to create a learning experience of play? Or community? How do you remodel a classroom to be a site of discovery or a space of discontinuity? This is a three-part process.

What knowledge and skills are being constructed
What learning and teaching technologies and methods are you using
And finally, what experience will the learners have in order to bring these two things together

So have a go yourself. Take advantage of your greatest success; what we do now and then smash it up!