EduTech AU 2015, Day 2, Higher Ed Leaders, “Innovation + Technology = great change to higher education”, #edutechau

Big session today. We’re starting with Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab and the founder of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), an initiative to create/provide affordable educational devices for children in the developing world. (Nicholas is coming to us via video conference, hooray, 21st Century, so this may or not work well in translation to blogging. Please bear with me if it’s a little disjointed.)

Nicholas would rather be here but he’s bravely working through his first presentation of this type! It’s going to be a presentation with some radical ideas so he’s hoping for conversation and debate. The presentation is broken into five parts:

  1. Learning learning. (Teaching and learning as separate entities.)
  2. What normal market forces will not do. (No real surprise that standard market forces won’t work well here.)
  3. Education without curricula. (Learning comes from many places and situations. Understanding and establishing credibility.)
  4. Where do new ideas come from? (How do we get them, how do we not get in the way.)
  5. Connectivity as a human right. (Is connectivity a human right or a means to rights such as education and healthcare? Human rights are free so that raises a lot of issues.

Nicholas then drilled down in “Learning learning”, starting with a reference to Seymour Papert, and Nicholas reflected on the sadness of the serious accident of Seymour’s health from a personal perspective. Nicholas referred to Papert’s and Minsky’s work on trying to understand how children and machines learned respectively. In 1968, Seymour started thinking about it and on April, 9, 1970, he gave a talk on his thoughts. Seymour realised that thinking about programs gave insight into thinking, relating to the deconstruction and stepwise solution building (algorithmic thinking) that novice programmers, such as children, had to go through.

These points were up on the screen as Nicholas spoke:

  1. Construction versus instruction
  2. Why reinventing the wheel is good
  3. Coding as thinking about thinking

How do we write code? Write it, see if it works, see which behaviours we have that aren’t considered working, change the code (in an informed way, with any luck) and try again. (It’s a little more complicated than that but that’s the core.) We’re now into the area of transferable skills – it appeared that children writing computer programs learned a skill that transferred over into their ability to spell, potentially from the methodical application of debugging techniques.

Nicholas talked about a spelling bee system where you would focus on the 8 out of 10 you got right and ignore the 2 you didn’t get. The ‘debugging’ kids would talk about the ones that they didn’t get right because they were analsysing their mistakes, as a peer group and as individual reflection.

Nicholas then moved on to the failure of market forces. Why does Finland do so well when they don’t have tests, homework and the shortest number of school hours per day and school days per year. One reason? No competition between children. No movement of core resources into the private sector (education as poorly functioning profit machine). Nicholas identified the core difference between the mission and the market, which beautifully summarises my thinking.

The OLPC program started in Cambodia for a variety of reasons, including someone associated with the lab being a friend of the King. OLPC laptops could go into areas where the government wasn’t providing schools for safety reasons, as it needed minesweepers and the like. Nicholas’ son came to Cambodia from Italy to connect up the school to the Internet. What would the normal market not do? Telecoms would come and get cheaper. Power would come and get cheaper. Laptops? Hmm. The software companies were pushing the hardware companies, so they were both caught in a spiral of increasing power consumption for utility. Where was the point where we could build a simple laptop, as a mission of learning, that could have a smaller energy footprint and bring laptops and connectivity to billions of people.

This is one of the reasons why OLPC is a non-profit – you don’t have to sell laptops to support the system, you’re supporting a mission. You didn’t need to sell or push to justify staying in a market, as the production volume was already at a good price. Why did this work well? You can make partnerships that weren’t possible otherwise. It derails the “ah, you need food and shelter first” argument because you can change the “why do we need a laptop” argument to “why do we need education?” at which point education leads to increased societal conditions. Why laptops? Tablets are more consumer-focused than construction-focused. (Certainly true of how I use my tech.)

(When we launched the first of the Digital Technologies MOOCs, the deal we agreed upon with Google was that it wasn’t a profit-making venture at all. It never will be. Neither we nor Google make money from the support of teachers across Australia so we can have all of the same advantages as they mention above: open partnerships, no profit motive, working for the common good as a mission of learning and collegial respect. Highly recommended approach, if someone is paying you enough to make your rent and eat. The secret truth of academia is that they give you money to keep you housed, clothed and fed while you think. )

Nicholas told a story of kids changing from being scared or bored of school to using an approach that brings kids flocking in. A great measure of success.

Now, onto Education without curricula, starting by talking public versus private. This is a sensitive subject for many people. The biggest problem for public education in many cases is the private educational system, dragging out caring educators to a closed system. Remember Finland? There are no public schools and their educational system is astoundingly good. Nicholas’ points were:

  1. Public versus private
  2. Age segregation
  3. Stop testing. (Yay!)

The public sector is losing the imperative of the civic responsibility for education. Nicholas thinks it doesn’t make sense that we still segregate by ages as a hard limit. He thinks we should get away from breaking it into age groups, as it doesn’t clearly reflect where students are at.

Oh, testing. Nicholas correctly labelled the parental complicity in the production of the testing pressure cooker. “You have to get good grades if you’re going to Princeton!” The testing mania is dominating institutions and we do a lot of testing to measure and rank children, rather than determining competency. Oh, so much here. Testing leads to destructive behaviour.

So where do new ideas come from? (A more positive note.) Nicholas is interested in Higher Ed as sources of new ideas. Why does HE exist, especially if we can do things remotely or off campus? What is the role of the Uni in the future? Ha! Apparently, when Nicholas started the MIT media lab, he was accused of starting a sissy lab with artists and soft science… oh dear, that’s about as wrong as someone can get. His use of creatives was seen as soft when, of course, using creative users addressed two issues to drive new ideas: a creative approach to thinking and consulting with the people who used the technology. Who really invented photography? Photographers. Three points from this section.

  1. Children: our most precious natural resource
  2. Incrementalism is the enemy of creativity
  3. Brain drain

On the brain drain, we lose many, many students to other places. Uni are a place to solve huge problems rather than small, profit-oriented problems. The entrepreneurial focus leads to small problem solution, which is sucking a lot of big thinking out of the system. The app model is leading to a human resource deficit because the start-up phenomenon is ripping away some of our best problem solvers.

Finally, to connectivity as a human right. This is something that Nicholas is very, very passionate about. Not content. Not laptops. Being connected.  Learning, education, and access to these, from early in life to the end of life – connectivity is the end of isolation. Isolation comes in many forms and can be physical, geographical and social. Here are Nicholas’ points:

  1. The end of isolation.
  2. Nationalism is a disease (oh, so much yes.) Nations are the wrong taxonomy for the world.
  3. Fried eggs and omelettes.

Fried eggs and omelettes? In general, the world had crisp boundaries, yolk versus white. At work/at home. At school/not at school. We are moving to a more blended, less dichotomous approach because we are mixing our lives together. This is both bad (you’re getting work in my homelife) and good (I’m getting learning in my day).

Can we drop kids into a reading environment and hope that they’ll learn to read? Reading is only 3,500 years old, versus our language skills, so it has to be learned. But do we have to do it the way that we did it? Hmm. Interesting questions. This is where the tablets were dropped into illiterate villages without any support. (Does this require a seed autodidact in the group? There’s a lot to unpack it.) Nicholas says he made a huge mistake in naming the village in Ethiopia which has corrupted the experiment but at least the kids are getting to give press conferences!

Another massive amount of interesting information – sadly, no question time!


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