Mark Guzdial posted over on his blog on “Moving Beyond MOOCS: Could we move to understanding learning and teaching?” and discusses aspects (that still linger) of MOOC hype. (I’ve spoken about MOOCs done badly before, as well as recording the thoughts of people like Hugh Davis from Southampton.) One of Mark’s paragraphs reads:
“The value of being in the front row of a class is that you talk with the teacher. Getting physically closer to the lecturer doesn’t improve learning. Engagement improves learning. A MOOC puts everyone at the back of the class, listening only and doing the homework”
My reply to this was:
“You can probably guess that I have two responses here, the first is that the front row is not available to many in the real world in the first place, with the second being that, for far too many people, any seat in the classroom is better than none.
But I am involved in a, for us, large MOOC so my responses have to be regarded in that light. Thanks for the post!”
Mark, of course, called my bluff and responded with:
“Nick, I know that you know the literature in this space, and care about design and assessment. Can you say something about how you designed your MOOC to reach those who would not otherwise get access to formal educational opportunities? And since your MOOC has started, do you know yet if you achieved that goal — are you reaching people who would not otherwise get access?”
So here is that response. Thanks for the nudge, Mark! The answer is a bit long but please bear with me. We will be posting a longer summary after the course is completed, in a month or so. Consider this the unedited taster. I’m putting this here, early, prior to the detailed statistical work, so you can see where we are. All the numbers below are fresh off the system, to drive discussion and answering Mark’s question at, pretty much, a conceptual level.
First up, as some background for everyone, the MOOC team I’m working with is the University of Adelaide‘s Computer Science Education Research group, led by A/Prof Katrina Falkner, with me (Dr Nick Falkner), Dr Rebecca Vivian, and Dr Claudia Szabo.
I’ll start by noting that we’ve been working to solve the inherent scaling issues in the front of the classroom for some time. If I had a class of 12 then there’s no problem in engaging with everyone but I keep finding myself in rooms of 100+, which forces some people to sit away from me and also limits the number of meaningful interactions I can make to individuals in one setting. While I take Mark’s point about the front of the classroom, and the associated research is pretty solid on this, we encountered an inherent problem when we identified that students were better off down the front… and yet we kept teaching to rooms with more student than front. I’ll go out on a limb and say that this is actually a moral issue that we, as a sector, have had to look at and ignore in the face of constrained resources. The nature of large spaces and people, coupled with our inability to hover, means that we can either choose to have a row of students effectively in a semi-circle facing us, or we accept that after a relatively small number of students or number of rows, we have constructed a space that is inherently divided by privilege and will lead to disengagement.
So, Katrina’s and my first foray into this space was dealing with the problem in the physical lecture spaces that we had, with the 100+ classes that we had.
Katrina and I published a paper on “contributing student pedagogy” in Computer Science Education 22 (4), 2012, to identify ways for forming valued small collaboration groups as a way to promote engagement and drive skill development. Ultimately, by reducing the class to a smaller number of clusters and making those clusters pedagogically useful, I can then bring the ‘front of the class’-like experience to every group I speak to. We have given talks and applied sessions on this, including a special session at SIGCSE, because we think it’s a useful technique that reduces the amount of ‘front privilege’ while extending the amount of ‘front benefit’. (Read the paper for actual detail – I am skimping on summary here.)
We then got involved in the support of the national Digital Technologies curriculum for primary and middle school teachers across Australia, after being invited to produce a support MOOC (really a SPOC, small, private, on-line course) by Google. The target learners were teachers who were about to teach or who were teaching into, initially, Foundation to Year 6 and thus had degrees but potentially no experience in this area. (I’ve written about this before and you can find more detail on this here, where I also thanked my previous teachers!)
The motivation of this group of learners was different from a traditional MOOC because (a) everyone had both a degree and probable employment in the sector which reduced opportunistic registration to a large extent and (b) Australian teachers are required to have a certain number of professional development (PD) hours a year. Through a number of discussions across the key groups, we had our course recognised as PD and this meant that doing our course was considered to be valuable although almost all of the teachers we spoke to were furiously keen for this information anyway and my belief is that the PD was very much ‘icing’ rather than ‘cake’. (Thank you again to all of the teachers who have spent time taking our course – we really hope it’s been useful.)
To discuss access and reach, we can measure teachers who’ve taken the course (somewhere in the low thousands) and then estimate the number of students potentially assisted and that’s when it gets a little crazy, because that’s somewhere around 30-40,000.
In his talk at CSEDU 2014, Hugh Davis identified the student groups who get involved in MOOCs as follows. The majority of people undertaking MOOCs were life-long learners (older, degreed, M/F 50/50), people seeking skills via PD, and those with poor access to Higher Ed. There is also a small group who are Uni ‘tasters’ but very, very small. (I think we can agree that tasting a MOOC is not tasting a campus-based Uni experience. Less ivy, for starters.) The three approaches to the course once inside were auditing, completing and sampling, and it’s this final one that I want to emphasise because this brings us to one of the differences of MOOCs. We are not in control of when people decide that they are satisfied with the free education that they are accessing, unlike our strong gatekeeping on traditional courses.
I am in total agreement that a MOOC is not the same as a classroom but, also, that it is not the same as a traditional course, where we define how the student will achieve their goals and how they will know when they have completed. MOOCs function far more like many people’s experience of web browsing: they hunt for what they want and stop when they have it, thus the sampling engagement pattern above.
(As an aside, does this mean that a course that is perceived as ‘all back of class’ will rapidly be abandoned because it is distasteful? This makes the student-consumer a much more powerful player in their own educational market and is potentially worth remembering.)
Knowing these different approaches, we designed the individual subjects and overall program so that it was very much up to the participant how much they chose to take and individual modules were designed to be relatively self-contained, while fitting into a well-designed overall flow that built in terms of complexity and towards more abstract concepts. Thus, we supported auditing, completing and sampling, whereas our usual face-to-face (f2f) courses only support the first two in a way that we can measure.
As Hugh notes, and we agree through growing experience, marking/progress measures at scale are very difficult, especially when automated marking is not enough or not feasible. Based on our earlier work in contributing collaboration in the class room, for the F-6 Teacher MOOC we used a strong peer-assessment model where contributions and discussions were heavily linked. Because of the nature of the cohort, geographical and year-level groups formed who then conducted additional sessions and produced shared material at a slightly terrifying rate. We took the approach that we were not telling teachers how to teach but we were helping them to develop and share materials that would assist in their teaching. This reduced potential divisions and allows us to establish a mutually respectful relationship that facilitated openness.
(It’s worth noting that the courseware is creative commons, open and free. There are people reassembling the course for their specific take on the school system as we speak. We have a national curriculum but a state-focused approach to education, with public and many independent systems. Nobody makes any money out of providing this course to teachers and the material will always be free. Thank you again to Google for their ongoing support and funding!)
Overall, in this first F-6 MOOC, we had higher than usual retention of students and higher than usual participation, for the reasons I’ve outlined above. But this material was for curriculum support for teachers of young students, all of whom were pre-programming, and it could be contained in videos and on-line sharing of materials and discussion. We were also in the MOOC sweet-spot: existing degreed learners, PD driver, and their PD requirement depended on progressive demonstration on goal achievement, which we recognised post-course with a pre-approved certificate form. (Important note: if you are doing this, clear up how the PD requirements are met and how they need to be reported back, as early on as you can. It meant that we could give people something valuable in a short time.)
The programming MOOC, Think. Create. Code on EdX, was more challenging in many regards. We knew we were in a more difficult space and would be more in what I shall refer to as ‘the land of the average MOOC consumer’. No strong focus, no PD driver, no geographically guaranteed communities. We had to think carefully about what we considered to be useful interaction with the course material. What counted as success?
To start with, we took an image-based approach (I don’t think I need to provide supporting arguments for media-driven computing!) where students would produce images and, over time, refine their coding skills to produce and understand how to produce more complex images, building towards animation. People who have not had good access to education may not understand why we would use programming in more complex systems but our goal was to make images and that is a fairly universally understood idea, with a short production timeline and very clear indication of achievement: “Does it look like a face yet?”
So our design brief was that it should be very easy to get into programming immediately, with an active and engaged approach, and that we have the same “mostly self-contained week” approach, with lots of good peer interaction and mutual evaluation to identify areas that needed work to allow us to build our knowledge together. (You know I may as well have ‘social constructivist’ tattooed on my head so this is strongly in keeping with my principles.) We wrote all of the materials from scratch, based on a 6-week program that we debated for some time. Materials consisted of short videos, additional material as short notes, participatory activities, quizzes and (we planned for) peer assessment (more on that later). You didn’t have to have been exposed to “the lecture” or even the advanced classroom to take the course. Any exposure to short videos or a web browser would be enough familiarity to go on with.
Our goal was to encourage as much engagement as possible, taking into account the fact that any number of students over 1,000 would be very hard to support individually, even with the 5-6 staff we had to help out. But we wanted students to be able to develop quickly, share quickly and, ultimately, comment back on each other’s work quickly. From a cognitive load perspective, it was crucial to keep the number of things that weren’t relevant to the task to a minimum, as we couldn’t assume any prior familiarity. This meant no installers, no linking, no loaders, no shenanigans. Write program, press play, get picture, share to gallery, winning.
As part of this, our support team (thanks, Jill!) developed a browser-based environment for Processing.js that integrated with a course gallery. Students could save their own work easily and share it trivially. Our early indications show that a lot of students jumped in and tried to do something straight away. (Processing is really good for getting something up, fast, as we know.) We spent a lot of time testing browsers, testing software, and writing code. All of the recorded materials used that development environment (this was important as Processing.js and Processing have some differences) and all of our videos show the environment in action. Again, as little extra cognitive load as possible – no implicit requirement for abstraction or skills transfer. (The AdelaideX team worked so hard to get us over the line – I think we may have eaten some of their brains to save those of our students. Thank you again to the University for selecting us and to Katy and the amazing team.)
The actual student group, about 20,000 people over 176 countries, did not have the “built-in” motivation of the previous group although they would all have their own levels of motivation. We used ‘meet and greet’ activities to drive some group formation (which worked to a degree) and we also had a very high level of staff monitoring of key question areas (which was noted by participants as being very high for EdX courses they’d taken), everyone putting in 30-60 minutes a day on rotation. But, as noted before, the biggest trick to getting everyone engaged at the large scale is to get everyone into groups where they have someone to talk to. This was supposed to be provided by a peer evaluation system that was initially part of the assessment package.
Sadly, the peer assessment system didn’t work as we wanted it to and we were worried that it would form a disincentive, rather than a supporting community, so we switched to a forum-based discussion of the works on the EdX discussion forum. At this point, a lack of integration between our own UoA programming system and gallery and the EdX discussion system allowed too much distance – the close binding we had in the R-6 MOOC wasn’t there. We’re still working on this because everything we know and all evidence we’ve collected before tells us that this is a vital part of the puzzle.
In terms of visible output, the amount of novel and amazing art work that has been generated has blown us all away. The degree of difference is huge: armed with approximately 5 statements, the number of different pieces you can produce is surprisingly large. Add in control statements and reputation? BOOM. Every student can write something that speaks to her or him and show it to other people, encouraging creativity and facilitating engagement.
From the stats side, I don’t have access to the raw stats, so it’s hard for me to give you a statistically sound answer as to who we have or have not reached. This is one of the things with working with a pre-existing platform and, yes, it bugs me a little because I can’t plot this against that unless someone has built it into the platform. But I think I can tell you some things.
I can tell you that roughly 2,000 students attempted quiz problems in the first week of the course and that over 4,000 watched a video in the first week – no real surprises, registrations are an indicator of interest, not a commitment. During that time, 7,000 students were active in the course in some way – including just writing code, discussing it and having fun in the gallery environment. (As it happens, we appear to be plateauing at about 3,000 active students but time will tell. We have a lot of post-course analysis to do.)
It’s a mistake to focus on the “drop” rates because the MOOC model is different. We have no idea if the people who left got what they wanted or not, or why they didn’t do anything. We may never know but we’ll dig into that later.
I can also tell you that only 57% of the students currently enrolled have declared themselves explicitly to be male and that is the most likely indicator that we are reaching students who might not usually be in a programming course, because that 43% of others, of whom 33% have self-identified as women, is far higher than we ever see in classes locally. If you want evidence of reach then it begins here, as part of the provision of an environment that is, apparently, more welcoming to ‘non-men’.
We have had a number of student comments that reflect positive reach and, while these are not statistically significant, I think that this also gives you support for the idea of additional reach. Students have been asking how they can save their code beyond the course and this is a good indicator: ownership and a desire to preserve something valuable.
For student comments, however, this is my favourite.
I’m no artist. I’m no computer programmer. But with this class, I see I can be both. #processingjs (Link to student’s work) #code101x .
That’s someone for whom this course had them in the right place in the classroom. After all of this is done, we’ll go looking to see how many more we can find.
I know this is long but I hope it answered your questions. We’re looking forward to doing a detailed write-up of everything after the course closes and we can look at everything.
EduTech AU 2015, Day 2, Higher Ed Leaders, “Change and innovation in the Digital Age: the future is social, mobile and personalised.” #edutechau @timbuckteethPosted: June 3, 2015
And heeere’s Steve Wheeler (@timbuckteeth)! Steve is an A/Prof of Learning Technologies at Plymouth in the UK. He and I have been at the same event before (CSEDU, Barcelona) and we seem to agree on a lot. Today’s cognitive bias warning is that I will probably agree with Steve a lot, again. I’ve already quizzed him on his talk because it looked like he was about to try and, as I understand it, what he wants to talk about is how our students can have altered expectations without necessarily becoming some sort of different species. (There are no Digital Natives. No, Prensky was wrong. Check out Helsper, 2010, from the LSE.) So, on to the talk and enough of my nonsense!
Steve claims he’s going to recap the previous speaker, but in an English accent. Ah, the Mayflower steps on the quayside in Plymouth, except that they’re not, because the real Mayflower steps are in a ladies’ loo in a pub, 100m back from the quay. The moral? What you expect to be getting is not always what you get. (Tourists think they have the real thing, locals know the truth.)
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – Arthur C. Clarke.
Educational institutions are riddled with bad technology purchases where we buy something, don’t understand it, don’t support it and yet we’re stuck with it or, worse, try to teach with it when it doesn’t work.
Predicting the future is hard but, for educators, we can do it better if we look at:
- Pedagogy first
- Technology next (that fits the technology)
Steve then plugs his own book with a quote on technology not being a silver bullet.
But who will be our students? What are their expectations for the future? Common answers include: collaboration (student and staff), and more making and doing. They don’t like being talked at. Students today do not have a clear memory of the previous century, their expectations are based on the world that they are living in now, not the world that we grew up in.
Meet Student 2.0!
The average digital birth of children happens at about six months – but they can be on the Internet before they are born, via ultrasound photos. (Anyone who has tried to swipe or pinch-zoom a magazine knows why kids take to it so easily.) Students of today have tools and technology and this is what allows them to create, mash up, and reinvent materials.
What about Game Based Learning? What do children learn from playing games
Three biggest fears of teachers using technology
- How do I make this work?
- How do I avoid looking like an idiot?
- They will know more about it than I do.
Three biggest fears of students
- Bad wifi
- Spinning wheel of death
- Low battery
The laptops and devices you see in lectures are personal windows on the world, ongoing conversations and learning activities – it’s not purely inattention or anti-learning. Student questions on Twitter can be answered by people all around the world and that’s extending the learning dialogue out a long way beyond the classroom.
Voltaire said that we were products of our age. Walrick asks how we can prepare students for a future? Steve showed us a picture of him as a young boy, who had been turned off asking questions by a mocking teacher. But the last two years of his schooling were in Holland he went to the Philips flying saucer, which was a technology museum. There, he saw an early video conferencing system and that inspired him with a vision of the future.
Steve wanted to be an astronaut but his career advisor suggested he aim lower, because he wasn’t an American. The point is not that Steve wanted to be an astronaut but that he wanted to be an explorer, the role that he occupies now in education.
Steve shared a quote that education is “about teaching students not subjects” and he shared the awesome picture of ‘named quadrilaterals’. My favourite is ‘Bob. We have a very definite idea of what we want students to write as answer but we suppress creative answers and we don’t necessarily drive the approach to learning that we want.
Ignorance spreads happily by itself, we shouldn’t be helping it. Our visions of the future are too often our memories of what our time was, transferred into modern systems. Our solution spaces are restricted by our fixations on a specific way of thinking. This prevents us from breaking out of our current mindset and doing something useful.
What will the future be? It was multi-media, it was web, but where is it going? Mobile devices because the most likely web browser platform in 2013 and their share is growing.
What will our new technologies be? Thinks get smaller, faster, lighter as they mature. We have to think about solving problems in new ways.
Here’s a fire hose sip of technologies: artificial intelligence is on the way up, touch surfaces are getting better, wearables are getting smarter, we’re looking at remote presence, immersive environments, 3D printers are changing manufacturing and teaching, gestural computing, mind control of devices, actual physical implants into the body…
From Nova Spivak, we can plot information connectivity against social connectivity and we want is growth on both axes – a giant arrow point up to the top right. We don’t yet have a Web form that connects information, knowledge and people – i.e. linking intelligence and people. We’re already seeing some of this with recommenders, intelligent filtering, and sentiment tracking. (I’m still waiting for the Semantic Web to deliver, I started doing work on it in my PhD, mumble years ago.)
A possible topology is: infrastructure is distributed and virtualised, our interfaces are 3D and interactive, built onto mobile technology and using ‘intelligent’ systems underneath.
But you cannot assume that your students are all at the same level or have all of the same devices: the digital divide is as real and as damaging as any social divide. Steve alluded to the Personal Learning Networking, which you can read about in my previous blog on him.
How will teaching change? It has to move away from cutting down students into cloned templates. We want students to be self-directed, self-starting, equipped to capture information, collaborative, and oriented towards producing their own things.
Let’s get back to our roots:
- We learn by doing (Piaget, 1950)
- We learn by making (Papert, 1960)
Just because technology is making some of this doing and making easier doesn’t mean we’re making it worthless, it means that we have time to do other things. Flip the roles, not just the classroom. Let students’ be the teacher – we do learn by teaching. (Couldn’t agree more.)
Back to Papert, “The best learning takes place when students take control.” Students can reflect in blogging as they present their information a hidden audience that they are actually writing for. These physical and virtual networks grow, building their personal learning networks as they connect to more people who are connected to more people. (Steve’s a huge fan of Twitter. I’m not quite as connected as he is but that’s like saying this puddle is smaller than the North Sea.)
Some of our students are strongly connected and they do store their knowledge in groups and friendships, which really reflects how they find things out. This rolls into digital cultural capital and who our groups are.
(Then there was a steam of images at too high a speed for me to capture – go and download the slides, they’re creative commons and a lot of fun.)
Learners will need new competencies and literacies.
Always nice to hear Steve speak and, of course, I still agree with a lot of what he said. I won’t prod him for questions, though.
EduTech AU 2015, Day 2, Higher Ed Leaders, “Innovation + Technology = great change to higher education”, #edutechauPosted: June 3, 2015
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:
- Learning learning. (Teaching and learning as separate entities.)
- What normal market forces will not do. (No real surprise that standard market forces won’t work well here.)
- Education without curricula. (Learning comes from many places and situations. Understanding and establishing credibility.)
- Where do new ideas come from? (How do we get them, how do we not get in the way.)
- 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:
- Construction versus instruction
- Why reinventing the wheel is good
- 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:
- Public versus private
- Age segregation
- 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.
- Children: our most precious natural resource
- Incrementalism is the enemy of creativity
- 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:
- The end of isolation.
- Nationalism is a disease (oh, so much yes.) Nations are the wrong taxonomy for the world.
- 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!
EduTECH AU 2015, Day 1, Higher Ed Leaders, “Revolutionising the Student Experience: Thinking Boldly” #edutechauPosted: June 2, 2015
Lucy Schulz, Deakin University, came to speak about initiatives in place at Deakin, including the IBM Watson initiative, which is currently a world-first for a University. How can a University collaborate to achieve success on a project in a short time? (Lucy thinks that this is the more interesting question. It’s not about the tool, it’s how they got there.)
Some brief facts on Deakin: 50,000 students, 11,000 of whom are on-line. Deakin’s question: how can we make the on-line experience as good if not better than the face-to-face and how can on-line make face-to-face better?
Part of Deakin’s Student Experience focus was on delighting the student. I really like this. I made a comment recently that our learning technology design should be “Everything we do is valuable” and I realise now I should have added “and delightful!” The second part of the student strategy is for Deakin to be at the digital frontier, pushing on the leading edge. This includes understanding the drivers of change in the digital sphere: cultural, technological and social.
(An aside: I’m not a big fan of the term disruption. Disruption makes room for something but I’d rather talk about the something than the clearing. Personal bug, feel free to ignore.)
The Deakin Student Journey has a vision to bring students into the centre of Uni thinking, every level and facet – students can be successful and feel supported in everything that they do at Deakin. There is a Deakin personality, an aspirational set of “Brave, Stylish, Accessible, Inspiring and Savvy”.
Not feeling this as much but it’s hard to get a feel for something like this in 30 seconds so moving on.
What do students want in their learning? Easy to find and to use, it works and it’s personalised.
So, on to IBM’s Watson, the machine that won Jeopardy, thus reducing the set of games that humans can win against machines to Thumb Wars and Go. We then saw a video on Watson featuring a lot of keen students who coincidentally had a lot of nice things to say about Deakin and Watson. (Remember, I warned you earlier, I have a bit of a thing about shiny videos but ignore me, I’m a curmudgeon.)
The Watson software is embedded in a student portal that all students can access, which has required a great deal of investigation into how students communicate, structurally and semantically. This forms the questions and guides the answer. I was waiting to see how Watson was being used and it appears to be acting as a student advisor to improve student experience. (Need to look into this more once day is over.)
Ah, yes, it’s on a student home page where they can ask Watson questions about things of importance to students. It doesn’t appear that they are actually programming the underlying system. (I’m a Computer Scientist in a faculty of Engineering, I always want to get my hands metaphorically dirty, or as dirty as you can get with 0s and 1s.) From looking at the demoed screens, one of the shiny student descriptions of Watson as “Siri plus Google” looks very apt.
Oh, it has cheekiness built in. How delightful. (I have a boundless capacity for whimsy and play but an inbuilt resistance to forced humour and mugging, which is regrettably all that the machines are capable of at the moment. I should confess Siri also rubs me the wrong way when it tries to be funny as I have a good memory and the patterns are obvious after a while. I grew up making ELIZA say stupid things – don’t judge me! 🙂 )
Watson has answered 26,000 questions since February, with an 80% accuracy for answers. The most common questions change according to time of semester, which is a nice confirmation of existing data. Watson is still being trained, with two more releases planned for this year and then another project launched around course and career advisors.
What they’ve learned – three things!
- Student voice is essential and you have to understand it.
- Have to take advantage of collaboration and interdependencies with other Deakin initiatives.
- Gained a new perspective on developing and publishing content for students. Short. Clear. Concise.
The challenges of revolution? (Oh, they’re always there.) Trying to prevent students falling through the cracks and make sure that this tool help students feel valued and stay in contact. The introduction of new technologies have to be recognised in terms of what they change and what they improve.
Collaboration and engagement with your University and student community are essential!
Thanks for a great talk, Lucy. Be interesting to see what happens with Watson in the next generations.
EduTECH AU 2015, Day 1, Higher Ed Leaders, Panel Discussion “Leveraging data for strategic advantage” #edutechauPosted: June 2, 2015
A most distinguished panel today. It can be hard to capture panel discussions so I will do what I can to get the pertinent points down. However, the fact that we are having this panel gives you some indication of the importance of this issue. Getting to know your data will make it easier for you to work out what to do in the future.
University of Wollongong (UoW) have set up a University-wide approach to Learning Analytics, with 30 courses in an early adopter program, scaling up over the next two years. Give things that they have learned.
- You need to have a very clear strategic approach for learning analytics. Learning analytics are built into key strategies. This ties in the key governing bodies and gives you the resources.
- Learning analytics need to be tied into IT and data management strategies – separating infrastructure and academics won’t work.
- The only driver for UoW is the academic driver, not data and not technology. All decisions are academic. “what is the value that this adds to maximums student learning, provide personalised learning and early identification of students at risk?”
- Governance is essential. UoW have a two-tier structure, a strategic group and an ethical use of data group. Both essential but separate.
- With data, and learning analytics, comes a responsibility for action. Actions by whom and, then, what action? What are the roles of the student, staff and support services? Once you have seen a problem that requires intervention, you are obliged to act.
I totally agree with this. I have had similar arguments on the important nature of 5.
The next speaker is from University of Melbourne (UoM), who wanted to discuss a high-level conceptual model. At the top of the model is the term ‘success’, a term that is not really understood or widely used, at national or local level. He introduced the term of ‘education analytics’ where we look at the overall identity of the student and interactions with the institution. We’re not having great conversations with students through written surveys so analytics can provide this information (a controversial approach). UoM want a new way, a decent way, to understand the student, rather than taking a simplistic approach. I think he mentioned intersectionality but not in a way that I really understood it.
Most of what determines student success in Australia isn’t academic, it’s personal, and we have to understand that. We also can’t depend on governments to move this, it will have to come out of the universities.
The next speaker is from University of Sydney, who had four points he wanted to make.
He started by talking about the potential of data. Data is there but it’s time to leverage it. Why are institutions not adopting LA as fast as they could? We understand the important of data-backed decision making.
Working with LA requires a very broad slice across the University – IT, BI, Academics, all could own it and they all want to control it. We want to collaborate so we need clear guidance and clear governance. Need to identify who is doing what without letting any one area steal it.
Over the last years, we have forgotten about the proximity of data. It’s all around us but many people think it’s not accessible. How do we get our hands on all of this data to make information-backed decisions in the right timeframe? This proximity applies to students as well, they should be able to see what’s going on as a day-by-day activity.
The final panellist is from Curtin University. Analytics have to be embedded into daily life and available with little effort if they’re going to be effective. At Curtin, analytics have a role in all places in the Uni, library, learning, life-long learning, you name it. Data has to be unified and available on demand. What do users want?
Curtin focused on creating demand – can they now meet that demand with training and staffing, to move to the next phase of attraction?
Need to be in a position of assisting everyone. This is a new world so have to be ready to help people quite a lot in the earlier stages. Is Higher Ed ready for the type of change that Amazon caused in the book market? Higher Ed can still have a role as validator of education but we have to learn to work with new approaches before our old market is torn out form underneath us.
We need to disentangle what the learner does from what the machine does.
That finished off the initial panel statements and then the chair moved to ask questions to the panel. I’ll try and summarise that.
One question was about the issue of security and privacy of student information. Can we take data that we used to help a student to complete their studies and then use that to try and recruit a new student, even anonymised? UoW mentioned that having a separate data ethics group for exactly this reason. UoW started this with a student survey, one question of which is “do you feel like this is Big Brother”. Fortunately, most felt that it wasn’t but they wanted to know what was going to happen with the data and the underlying driver had to be to help them to succeed.
Issuing a clear policy and embracing transparency is crucial here.
UoM made the point that much work is not built on a strong theoretical basis and a great deal of it is measuring what we already think we care about. There is a lot of value in clearly identifying what works and what doesn’t.
That’s about it for this session. Again, so much to think about.
I jumped streams (GASP) to attend Mark Gregory’s talk on “Building customer-centric IT services.” Mark is the CIO from my home institutions, the University of Adelaide, and I work closely with him on a couple of projects. There’s an old saying that if you really want to know what’s going on in your IT branch, go and watch the CIO give a presentation away from home, which may also explain why I’m here. (Yes, I’m a dreadful cynic.)
Seven years ago, we had the worst customer-centric IT ratings in Australia and New Zealand, now we have some of the highest. That’s pretty impressive and, for what it’s worth, it reflects my experiences inside the institution.
Mark showed a picture of the ENIAC team, noting that the picture had been mocked up a bit, as additional men had been staged in the picture, which was a bit strange even the ENIAC team were six women to one man. (Yes, this has been going on for a long time.) His point was that we’ve come a long way from he computer attended by acolytes as a central resource to computers everywhere that everyone can access and we have specifically chosen. Technology is now something that you choose rather than what you put up with.
For Adelaide, on a typical day we see about 56,000 devices on the campus networks, only a quarter of which are University-provided. Over time, the customer requirement for centralised skills is shrinking as their own skills and the availability of outside (often cloud-based) resources increase. In 2020-2025, fewer and fewer of people on campus will need centralised IT.
Is ERP important? Mark thinks ‘Meh’ because it’s being skinned with Apps and websites, the actual ERP running in the background. What about networks? Well, everyone’s got them. What about security? That’s more of an imposition and it’s used by design issues. Security requirements are not a crowd pleaser.
So how will our IT services change over time?
A lot of us are moving from SOE to BYOD but this means saying farewell to the Standard Operating Environment (SOE). It’s really not desirable to be in this role, but it also drives a new financial model. We see 56,000 devices for 25,000 people – the mobility ship has sailed. How will we deal with it?
We’re moving from a portal model to an app model. The one stop shop is going and the new model is the build-it-yourself app store model where every device is effectively customised. The new user will not hang out in the portal environment.
Mark thinks we really, really need to increase the level of Self Help. A year ago, he put up 16 pages of PDFs and discovered that, over the year, 35,000 people went through self help compared to 70,000 on traditional help-desk. (I question that the average person in the street knows that an IP address given most of what I see in movies. 😉 )
The newer operating systems require less help but student self-help use is outnumbered 5 times by staff usage. Students go somewhere else to get help. Interesting. Our approaches to VPN have to change – it’s not like your bank requires one. Our approaches to support have to change – students and staff work 24×7, so why were we only supporting them 8-6? Adelaide now has a contract service outside of those hours to take the 100 important calls that would have been terrible had they not been fixed.
Mark thinks that IDM and access need to be fixed, it makes up 24% of their reported problems: password broken, I can’t get on and so on.
Security used to be on the device that the Uni owned. This has changed. Now it has to be data security, as you can’t guarantee that you own the device. Virtual desktops and virtual apps can offer data containerisation among their other benefits.
Let’s change the thinking from setting a perimeter to the person themselves. The boundaries are shifting and, let’s be honest, the inside of any network with 30,000 people is going to be swampy anyway.
Project management thinking is shifting from traditional to agile, which gets closer to the customer on shorter and smaller projects. But you have to change how you think about projects.
A lot of tools used to get built that worked with data but now people want to make this part of their decision infrastructure. Data quality is now very important.
The massive shift is from “provide and control” to “advise and enable”. (Sorry, auditors.) Another massive shift is from automation of a process that existed to support a business to help in designing the processes that will support the business. This is a driver back into policy space. (Sorry, central admin branch.) At the same time, Mark believes that they’re transitioning from a functional approach to a customer-centric focus. A common services layer will serve the student, L&T, research and admin groups but those common services may not be developed or even hosted inside the institution.
It’s not a surprise to anyone who’s been following what Mark has been doing, but he believes that the role is shifting from IT operations to University strategy.
Some customers are going to struggle. Some people will always need help. But what about those highly capable individuals who could help you? This is where innovation and co-creation can take place, with specific people across the University.
Mark wants Uni IT organisations to disrupt themselves. (The Go8 are rather conservative and are not prone to discussing disruption, let alone disrupting.)
Basically, if customers can do it, make themselves happy and get what they want working, why are you in their way? If they can do it themselves, then get out of the way except for those things where you add value and make the experience better. We’re helping people who are desperate but we’re not putting as much effort into the innovators and more radical thinkers. Mark’s belief is that investing more effort into collaboration, co-creation and innovation is the way to go.
It looks risky but is it? What happens if you put technology out there? How do you get things happening?
Mark wants us to move beyond Service Level Agreements, which he describes as the bottom bar. No great athlete performs at the top level because of an SLA. This requires a move to meaningful metrics. (Very similar to student assessment, of course! Same problem!) Just because we measure something doesn’t make it meaningful!
We tended to hire skills to provide IT support. Mark believes that we should now be hiring attributes: leaders, drivers, innovators. The customer wants to get somewhere. How can we help them?
Lots to think about – thanks, Mark!
I’m hoping to write a few pieces on design in the coming days. I’ll warn you now that one of them will be about toilets, so … urm … prepare yourself, I guess? Anyway, back to today’s theme: the driverless car. I wanted to talk about it because it’s a great example of what technology could do, not in terms of just doing something useful but in terms of changing how we think. I’m going to look at some of the changes that might happen. No doubt many of you will have ideas and some of you will disagree so I’ll wait to see what shows up in the comments.
Humans have been around for quite a long time but, surprisingly given how prominent they are in our lives, cars have only been around for 120 years in the form that we know them – gasoline/diesel engines, suspension and smaller-than-buggy wheels. And yet our lives are, in many ways, built around them. Our cities bend and stretch in strange ways to accommodate roads, tunnels, overpasses and underpasses. Ask anyone who has driven through Atlanta, Georgia, where an Interstate of near-infinite width can be found running from Peachtree & Peachtree to Peachtree, Peachtree, Peachtree and beyond!
But what do we think of when we think of cars? We think of transportation. We think of going where we want, when we want. We think of using technology to compress travel time and this, for me, is a classic human technological perspective because we are love to amplify. Cars make us faster. Computers allow us to add up faster. Guns help us to kill better.
So let’s say we get driverless cars and, over time, the majority of cars on the road are driverless. What does this mean? Well, if you look at road safety stats and the WHO reports, you’ll see that about up 40% of traffic fatalities can be straight line accidents (these figures from the Victorian roads department, 2006-2013). That is, people just drive off a straight road and kill themselves. The leading killers overall are alcohol, fatigue, and speed. Driverless cars will, in one go, remove all of these. Worldwide, a million people per year just stopped dying.
But it’s not just transportation. In America, commuting to work eats up from 35-65 hours of your year. If you live in DC, you spend two weeks every year cursing the Beltway. And it’s not as if you can easily work in your car so those are lost hours. That’s not enjoyable driving! That’s hours of frustration, wasted fuel, exposure to burning fuel, extra hours you have to work. The fantasy of the car is driving a convertible down the Interstate in the sunshine, listening to rock, and singing along. The reality is inching forward with the windows up in a 10 year old Nissan family car while stuck between FM stations and having to listen to your second iPod because the first one’s out of power. And it’s the joke one that only has Weird Al on it.
Enter the driverless car. Now you can do some work but there’s no way that your commute will be as bad anyway because we can start to do away with traffic lights and keep the traffic moving. You’ll be there for less time but you can do more. Have a sleep if you want. Learn a language. Do a MOOC! Winning!
Why do I think it will be faster? Every traffic light has a period during which no-one is moving. Why? Because humans need clear signals and need to know what other drivers are doing. A driverless car can talk to other cars and they can weave in and out of the traffic signals. Many traffic jams are caused by people hitting the brakes and then people arrive at this braking point faster than people are leaving. There is no need for this traffic jam and, with driverless cars, keeping distance and speed under control is far easier. Right now, cars move like ice through a vending machine. We want them to move like water.
How will you work in your car? Why not make every driverless car a wireless access point using mesh networking? Now the more cars you get together, the faster you can all work. The I495 Beltway suddenly becomes a hub of activity rather than a nightmare of frustration. (In a perfect world, aliens come to Earth and take away I495 as their new emperor, leaving us with matter transporters, but I digress.)
But let’s go further. Driverless cars can have package drops in them. The car that picks you up from work has your Amazon parcels in the back. It takes meals to people who can’t get out. It moves books around.
But let’s go further. Make them electric and put some of Elon’s amazing power cells into them and suddenly we have a power transportation system if we can manage the rapid charge/discharge issues. Your car parks in the city turn into repair and recharge facilities for fleets of driverless cars, charging from the roof solar and wind, but if there’s a power problem, you can send 1000 cars to plug into the local grid and provide emergency power.
We still need to work out some key issues of integration: cyclists, existing non-converted cars and pedestrians are the first ones that come to mind. But, in my research group, we have already developed passive localisation that works on a scale that could easily be put onto cars so you know when someone is among the cars. Combine that with existing sensors and all a cyclist has to do is to wear a sensor (non-personalised, general scale and anonymised) that lets intersections know that she is approaching and the cars can accommodate it. Pedestrians are slow enough that cars can move around them. We know that they can because slow humans do it often enough!
We start from ‘what could we do if we produced a driverless car’ and suddenly we have free time, increased efficiency and the capacity to do many amazing things.
Now, there are going to be protests. There are going to be people demanding their right to drive on the road and who will claim that driverless cars are dangerous. There will be anti-robot protests. There already have been. I expect that the more … freedom-loving states will blow up a few of these cars to make a point. Anyone remember the guy waving a red flag who had to precede every automobile? It’s happened before. It will happen again.
We have to accept that there are going to be deaths related to this technology, even if we plan really hard for it not to happen, and it may be because of the technology or it may be because of opposing human action. But cars are already killing so may people. 1.2 million people died on the road in 2010, 36,000 from America. We have to be ready for the fact that driverless cars are a stepping stone to getting people out of the grind of the commute and making much better use of our cities and road spaces. Once we go driverless we need to look at how many road accidents aren’t happening, and address the issues that still cause accidents in a driverless example.
Understand the problem. Measure what’s happening. Make a change. Measure again. Determine the impact.
When we think about keeping the manually driven cars on the road, we do have a precedent. If you look at air traffic, the NTSB Accidents and Accident Rates by NTSB Classification 1998-2007 report tells us that the most dangerous type of flying is small private planes, which are more than 5 times more likely to have an accident than commercial airliners. Maybe it will be the insurance rates or the training required that will reduce the private fleet? Maybe they’ll have overrides. We have to think about this.
It would be tempting to say “why still have cars” were it not for the increasingly ageing community, those people who have several children and those people who have restricted mobility, because they can’t just necessarily hop on a bike or walk. As someone who has had multiple knee surgeries, I can assure you that 100m is an insurmountable distance sometimes – and I used to run 45km up and down mountains. But what we can do is to design cities that work for people and accommodate the new driverless cars, which we can use in a much quieter, efficient and controlled manner.
Vehicles and people can work together. The Denver area, Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich and Bourke Street Mall in Melbourne are three simple examples where electric trams move through busy pedestrian areas. Driverless cars work like trams – or they can. Predictable, zoned and controlled. Better still, for cyclists, driverless cars can accommodate sharing the road much more easily although, as noted, there may still be some issues for traffic control that will need to be ironed out.
It’s easy to look at the driverless car as just a car but this is missing all of the other things we could be doing. This is just one example where the replacement of something ubiquitous that might just change the world for the better.
What to support? Thoughts on funding for ideas. We must fund the forges of creativity as well as the engines of science (@JulianBurnside #ideasforaus)Posted: May 3, 2015
The barrister and #HumanRightsExtremist, Julian Burnside AO QC, was part of today’s Carnegie Conversations at the Opera House. While I’m not there, I was intrigued by a tweet he sent about other discussions going on today regarding the investment of our resources to do the maximum good. (I believe that this was the session following his, with Peter Singer and chaired by Ann Cherry.)
Mr Burnside’s Tweet was (for those who haven’t seen the image):
What to support? Effective Altruism is good, but what about funding the arts, ideas and other things which can’t be measured? #ideasforaus
Some of the responses to this Tweet tried to directly measure the benefits of a cure for Malaria against funding the arts and, to me, this misses the point. I am a scientist, an artist, a husband, a cat steward, and many other things. As a scientist, I use the scientific method when I am undertaking my research into improving education for students and developing better solutions for use of technology. If you were to ask me which is better, putting funds into distributing a malarial cure or subsiding an opera, then we are so close to the endpoint of the activity that the net benefit can be measured. But if you were to ask me whether this means we could defund the arts to concentrate on biological science, I’d have to say no, because the creative development of solutions is not strictly linked to the methodical application of science.
As a computer scientist, I work in vast artificial universes where it is impossible to explore every option because we do not have enough universe. I depend upon insights and creativity to help me work out the solutions, which I can then test methodically. This is a known problem in all forms of large-scale optimisation – we have to settle for finding what we can, seeking the best, and we often have to step away to make sure that the peak we have ascended is not a foothill in the shadow of a greater mountain.
Measuring what goes into the production of a new idea is impossible. I can tell you that a number of my best solutions have come from weeks or months of thinking, combined with music, visits to art galleries, working with my hands, the pattern of water in the shower and the smell of fresh bread.
Once we have an idea then, yes, absolutely, let us fund centres and institutions that support and encourage the most rigorous and excellent mechanisms for turning ideas into reality. When we have a cure for malaria, we must fund it and distribute it, working on ways to reduce delays and cost mark-ups to those who need it most. But we work in spaces so big that walking the whole area is impossible. We depend upon leaps of intuition, creative exploration of solution spaces and, on occasion, flashes of madness to find the ideas that we can then develop
To think that we can focus only on the measurable outcomes is to totally miss the fact that we have no real idea where many of our best ideas come from and yet so many of us have stories of insight and clarity that stem from our interactions with a rich, developed culture of creativity. And that means funding the arts, the ideas and things that we cannot measure.
(Edited to make the hashtag at the top less likely to be misparsed.)
I caught up with a good friend recently and we were discussing the nature of time. She had stepped back from her job and was now spending a lot of her time with her new-born son. I have gone to working three days a week, hence have also stepped back from the five-day grind. It was interesting to talk about how this change to our routines had changed the way that we thought of and used time. She used a term that I wanted to discuss here, which was industrial time, to describe the clock-watching time of the full-time worker. This is part of the larger area of time discipline, how our society reacts to and uses time, and is really quite interesting. Both of us had stopped worrying about the flow of time in measurable hours on certain days and we just did things until we ran out of day. This is a very different activity from the usual “do X now, do Y in 15 minutes time” that often consumes us. In my case, it took me about three months of considered thought and re-training to break the time discipline habits of thirty years. In her case, she has a small child to help her to refocus her time sense on the now.
Modern time-sense is so pervasive that we often don’t think about some of the underpinnings of our society. It is easy to understand why we have years and, although they don’t line up properly, months given that these can be matched to astronomical phenomena that have an effect on our world (seasons and tides, length of day and moonlight, to list a few). Days are simple because that’s one light/dark cycle. But why there are 52 weeks in a year? Why are there 7 days in a week? Why did the 5-day week emerge as a contiguous block of 5 days? What is so special about working 9am to 5pm?
A lot of modern time descends from the struggle of radicals and unionists to protect workers from the excesses of labour, to stop people being worked to death, and the notion of the 8 hour day is an understandable division of a 24 hour day into three even chunks for work, rest and leisure. (Goodness, I sound like I’m trying to sell you chocolate!)
If we start to look, it turns out that the 7 day week is there because it’s there, based on religion and tradition. Interestingly enough, there have been experiments with other week lengths but it appears hard to shift people who are used to a certain routine and, tellingly, making people wait longer for days off appears to be detrimental to adoption.
If we look at seasons and agriculture, then there is a time to sow, to grow, to harvest and to clear, much as there is a time for livestock to breed and to be raised for purpose. If we look to the changing time of sunrise and sunset, there is a time at which natural light is available and when it is not. But, from a time discipline perspective, these time systems are not enough to be able to build a large-scale, industrial and synchronised society upon – we must replace a distributed, loose and collective notion of what time is with one that is centralised, authoritarian and singular. While religious ceremonies linked to seasonal and astronomical events did provide time-keeping on a large scale prior to the industrial revolution, the requirement for precise time, of an accuracy to hours and minutes, was not possible and, generally, not required beyond those cues given from nature such as dawn, noon, dusk and so on.
After the industrial revolution, industries and work was further developed that was heavily separated from a natural linkage – there are no seasons for a coal mine or a steam engine – and the development of the clock and reinforcement of the calendar of work allowed both the measurement of working hours (for payment) and the determination of deadlines, given that natural forces did not have to be considered to the same degree. Steam engines are completed, they have no need to ripen.
With the notion of fixed and named hours, we can very easily determine if someone is late when we have enough tools for measuring the flow of time. But this is, very much, the notion of the time that we use in order to determine when a task must be completed, rather than taking an approach that accepts that the task will be completed at some point within a more general span of time.
We still have confusion where our understanding of “real measures” such as days, interact with time discipline. Is midnight on the 3rd of April the second after the last moment of April the 2nd or the second before the first moment of April the 4th? Is midnight 12:00pm or 12:00am? (There are well-defined answers to this but the nature of the intersection is such that definitions have to be made.)
But let’s look at teaching for a moment. One of the great criticisms of educational assessment is that we confuse timeliness, and in this case we specifically mean an adherence to meeting time discipline deadlines, with achievement. Completing the work a crucial hour after it is due can lead to that work potentially not being marked at all, or being rejected. But we do usually have over-riding reasons for doing this but, sadly, these reasons are as artificial as the deadlines we impose. Why is an Engineering Degree a four-year degree? If we changed it to six would we get better engineers? If we switched to competency based training, modular learning and life-long learning, would we get more people who were qualified or experienced with engineering? Would we get less? What would happen if we switched to a 3/1/2/1 working week? Would things be better or worse? It’s hard to evaluate because the week, and the contiguous working week, are so much a part of our world that I imagine that today is the first day that some of you have thought about it.
Back to education and, right now, we count time for our students because we have to work out bills and close off accounts at end of financial year, which means we have to meet marking and award deadlines, then we have to project our budget, which is yearly, and fit that into accredited degree structures, which have year guidelines…
But I cannot give you a sound, scientific justification for any of what I just wrote. We do all of that because we are caught up in industrial time first and we convince ourselves that building things into that makes sense. Students do have ebb and flow. Students are happier on certain days than others. Transition issues on entry to University are another indicator that students develop and mature at different rates – why are we still applying industrial time from top to bottom when everything we see here says that it’s going to cause issues?
Oh, yes, the “real world” uses it. Except that regular studies of industrial practice show that 40 hour weeks, regular days off, working from home and so on are more productive than the burn-out, everything-late, rush that we consider to be the signs of drive. (If Henry Ford thinks that making people work more than 40 hours a week is bad for business, he’s worth listening to.) And that’s before we factor in the development of machines that will replace vast numbers of human jobs in the next 20 years.
I have a different approach. Why aren’t we looking at students more like we regard our grape vines? We plan, we nurture, we develop, we test, we slowly build them to the point where they can produce great things and then we sustain them for a fruitful and long life. When you plant grape vines, you expect a first reasonable crop level in three years, and commercial levels at five. Tellingly, the investment pattern for grapes is that it takes you 10 years to break even and then you start making money back. I can’t tell you how some of my students will turn out until 15-25 years down the track and it’s insanity to think you can base retrospective funding on that timeframe.
You can’t make your grapes better by telling them to be fruitful in two years. Some vines take longer than others. You can’t even tell them when to fruit (although can trick them a little). Yet, somehow, we’ve managed to work around this to produce a local wine industry worth around $5 billion dollars. We can work with variation and seasonal issues.
One of the reasons I’m so keen on MOOCs is that these can fit in with the routines of people who can’t dedicate themselves to full-time study at the moment. By placing well-presented, pedagogically-sound materials on-line, we break through the tyranny of the 9-5, 5 day work week and let people study when they are ready to, where they are ready to, for as long as they’re ready to. Like to watch lectures at 1am, hanging upside down? Go for it – as long as you’re learning and not just running the video in the background while you do crunches, of course!
Once you start to question why we have so many days in a week, you quickly start to wonder why we get so caught up on something so artificial. The simple answer is that, much like money, we have it because we have it. Perhaps it’s time to look at our educational system to see if we can do something that would be better suited to developing really good knowledge in our students, instead of making them adept at sliding work under our noses a second before it’s due. We are developing systems and technologies that can allow us to step outside of these structures and this is, I believe, going to be better for everyone in the process.
Conformity isn’t knowledge, and conformity to time just because we’ve always done that is something we should really stop and have a look at.
Nick Falkner is an Australian academic with a pretty interesting career path. He is also a culture sponge and, given that he’s (very happily) never going to be famous enough for a magazine style interview, he interviews himself on one of the more confronting images to come across the wires recently. For clarity, he’s the Interviewer (I) when he’s asking the questions.
Interviewer: As you said, “I want you to be sad. I want you to be angry. I want you to understand.” I’ve looked at the picture and I can see a lot of people who are being associated with a mass cheating scandal in the Indian state of Bihar. This appears to be a systematic problem, especially as even more cheating has been exposed in the testing for the police force! I think most people would agree that it’s a certainly a sad state of affairs and there are a lot of people I’ve heard speaking who are angry about this level of cheating – does this mean I understand? Basically, cheating is wrong?
Nick: No. What’s saddening me is that most of the reaction I’ve seen to this picture is lacking context, lacking compassion and, worse, perpetrating some of the worst victim blaming I’ve ever seen. I’m angry because people still don’t get that the system in place is Bihar, and wherever else we put systems like this, is going to lead to behaviour like this out of love and a desire for children to have opportunity, rather than some grand criminal scheme of petty advancement.
Interviewer: Well, ok, that’s a pretty strong set of statements. Does this mean that you think cheating is ok?
Nick: (laughs) Well, we’ve got the most usual response out of the way. No, I don’t support “cheating” in any educational activity because it means that the student is bypassing the learning design and, if we’ve done our job, this will be to their detriment. However, I also strongly believe that some approaches to large-scale education naturally lead to a range of behaviours where external factors can affect the perceived educational benefit to the student. In other words, I don’t want students to cheat but I know that we sometimes set things up so that cheating becomes a rational response and, in some cases, the only difference between a legitimate advantage and “cheating” is determined by privilege, access to funds and precedent.
Interviewer: Those are big claims. And you know what that means…
Nick: You want evidence! Ok. Let’s start with some context. Bihar is the third-largest state in India by population, with over 100 million people, the highest density of population in India, the largest number of people under 25 (nearly 60%), a heavily rural population (~85%) and a literacy rate around 64%. Bihar is growing very quickly but has put major work into its educational systems. From 2001 to 2011, literacy jumped from 48 to 64% – 20 of those percentage points are in increasing literacy in women alone.
If we took India out of the measurement, Bihar is in the top 11 countries in the world by population. And it’s accelerating in growth. At the same time, Bihar has lagged behind other Indian states in socio-economic development (for a range of reasons – it’s very … complicated). Historically, Bihar has been a seat of learning but recent actions, including losing an engineering college in 2000 due to boundary re-alignment, means that they are rebuilding themselves right now. At the same time, Bihar has a relatively low level of industrialisation by Indian standards although it’s redefining itself away from agriculture to services and industry at the moment, with some good economic growth. There are some really interesting projects on the horizon – the Indian Media Hub, IT centres and so on – which may bring a lot more money into the region.
Interviewer: Ok, Bihar is big, relatively poor … and?
Nick: And that’s the point. Bihar is full of people, not all of whom are literate, and many of whom still live in Indian agricultural conditions. The future is brightening for Bihar but if you want to be able to take advantage of that, then you’re going to have to be able to get into the educational system in the first place. That exam that the parents are “helping” their children with is one that is going to have an almost incomprehensibly large impact on their future…
Interviewer: Their future employment?
Nick: Not just that! This will have an impact on whether they live in a house with 24 hour power. On whether they will have an inside toilet. On whether they will be able to afford good medicine when they or their family get sick. On whether they will be able to support their parents when they get old. On how good the water they drink is. As well, yes, it will help them to get into a University system where, unfortunately, existing corruption means that money can smooth a path where actual ability has led to a rockier road. The article I’ve just linked to mentions pro-cheating rallies in Uttar Pradesh in the early 90s but we’ve seen similar arguments coming from areas where rote learning, corruption and mass learning systems are thrown together and the students become grist to a very hard stone mill. And, by similar arguments, I mean pro-cheating riots in China in 2013. Student assessment on the massive scale. Rote learning. “Perfect answers” corresponding to demonstrating knowledge. Bribery and corruption in some areas. Angry parents because they know that their children are being disadvantaged while everyone else is cheating. Same problem. Same response.
Interviewer: Well, it’s pretty sad that those countries…
Nick: I’m going to stop you there. Every time that we’ve forced students to resort to rote learning and “perfect answer” memorisation to achieve good outcomes, we’ve constructed an environment where carrying in notes, or having someone read you answers over a wireless link, suddenly becomes a way to successfully reach that outcome. The fact that this is widely used in the two countries that have close to 50% of the world’s population is a reflection of the problem of education at scale. Are you volunteering to sit down and read the 50 million free-form student essays that are produced every year in China under a fairer system? The US approach to standardised testing isn’t any more flexible. Here’s a great article on what’s wrong with the US approach because it identifies that these tests are good for measuring conformity to the test and its protocol, not the quality of any education received or the student’s actual abilities. But before we get too carried away about which countries cheat most, here are some American high school students sharing answers on Twitter.
Every time someone talks about the origin of a student, rather than the system that a student was trained under, we start to drift towards a racist mode of thinking that doesn’t help. Similar large-scale, unimaginative, conform-or-perish tests that you have to specifically study for across India, China and the US. What do we see? No real measurement of achievement or aptitude. Cheating. But let’s go back to India because the scale of the number of people involved really makes the high stakes nature of these exams even more obvious. Blow your SATs or your GREs and you can still do OK, if possibly not really well, in the US. In India… let’s have a look.
State Bank of India advertised some entry-level vacancies back in 2013. They wanted 1,500 people. 17 million applied. That’s roughly the adult population of Australia applying for some menial work at the bank. You’ve got people who are desperate to work, desperate to do something with their lives. We often think of cheats as being lazy or deceitful when it’s quite possible to construct a society so that cheating is part of a wider spectrum of behaviour that helps you achieve your goals. Performing well in exams in India and China is a matter of survival when you’re talking about those kinds of odds, not whether you get a great or an ok job.
Interviewer: You’d use a similar approach to discuss the cheating on the police exam?
Nick: Yes. It’s still something that shouldn’t be happening but the police force is a career and, rather sadly, can also be a lucrative source of alternative income in some countries. It makes sense that this is also something that people consider to be very, very high stakes. I’d put money on similar things happening in countries where achieving driving licences are a high stakes activity. (Oh, good, I just won money.)
Interviewer: So why do you want us to be sad?
Nick: I don’t actually want people to be sad, I’d much prefer it if we didn’t need to have this discussion. But, in a nutshell, every parent in that picture is actually demonstrating their love and support for their children and family. That’s what the human tragedy is here. These Biharis probably don’t have the connections or money to bypass the usual constraints so the best hope that their kids have is for their parents to risk their lives climbing walls to slip them notes.
I mean, everyone loves their kids. And, really, even those of us without children would be stupid not to realise that all children are our children in many ways, because they are the future. I know a lot of parents who saw this picture and they didn’t judge the people on the walls because they could see themselves there once they thought about it.
But it’s tragic. When the best thing you can do for your child is to help them cheat on an exam that controls their future? How sad is that?
Interviewer: Do you need us to be angry? Reading back, it sounds like you have enough anger for all of us.
Nick: I’m angry because we keep putting these systems in place despite knowing that they’re rubbish. Rousseau knew it hundreds of years ago. Dewey knew it in the 1930s. We keep pretending that exams like this sort people on merit when all of our data tells us that the best indicator of performance is the socioeconomic status of the parents, rather than which school they go to. But, of course, choosing a school is a kind of “legal” cheating anyway.
Interviewer: Ok, now there’s a controversial claim.
Nick: Not really. Studies show us that students at private schools tend to get higher University entry marks, which is the gateway to getting into courses and also means that they’ve completed their studies. Of course, the public school students who do get in go on to get higher GPAs… (This article contains the data.)
Interviewer: So it all evens out?
Nick: (laughs) No, but I have heard people say that. Basically, sending your kids to a “better” school, one of the private schools or one of the high-performing publics, especially those that offer International Baccalaureate, is not going to hurt your child’s chances of getting a good Tertiary entry mark. But, of course, the amount of money required to go to a private school is not… small… and the districting of public schools means that you have to be in the catchment to get one of these more desirable schools. And, strangely enough, once you factor in the socio-economic factors and outlook for a school district, it’s amazing how often that the high-performing schools map into higher SEF areas. Not all of them and there are some magnificent efforts in innovative and aggressive intervention in South Australia alone but even these schools have limited spaces and depend upon the primary feeder schools. Which school you go to matters. It shouldn’t. But it does.
So, you could bribe someone to make the exam easier or you could pay up to AUD $24,160 in school fees every year to put your child into a better environment. You could go to your local public school or, if you can manage the difficulty and cost of upheaval, you could relate to a new suburb to get into a “better” public school. Is that fair to the people that your child is competing against to get into limited places at University if they can’t afford that much or can’t move? That $24,000 figure is from this year’s fees for one of South Australia’s most highly respected private schools. That figure is 10 times the nominal median Indian income and roughly the same as an experienced University graduate would make in Bihar each year. In Australia, the 2013 median household income was about twice that figure, before tax. So you can probably estimate how many Australian families could afford to put one, or more, children through that kind of schooling for 5-12 years and it’s not a big number.
The Biharis in the picture don’t have a better option. They don’t have the money to bribe or the ability to move. Do you know how I know? Because they are hanging precariously from a wall trying to help their children copy out a piece of information in perfect form in order to get an arbitrary score that could add 20 years to their lifespan and save their own children from dying of cholera or being poisoned by contaminated water.
Some countries, incredibly successful education stories like Finland (seriously, just Google “Finland Educational System” and prepare to have your mind blown), take the approach that every school should be excellent, every student is valuable, every teacher is a precious resource and worthy of respect and investment and, for me, these approaches are the only way to actually produce a fair system. Excellence in education that is only available to the few makes everyone corrupt, to a greater or lesser degree, whether they realise it or not. So I’m angry because we know exactly what happens with high stakes exams like this and I want everyone to be angry because we are making ourselves do some really awful things to ourselves by constantly bending to conform to systems like this. But I want people to be angry because the parents in the picture have a choice of “doing the right thing” and watching their children suffer, or “doing the wrong thing” and getting pilloried by a large and judgemental privileged group on the Internet. You love your kids. They love their kids. We should all be angry that these people are having to scramble for crumbs at such incredibly high stakes.
But demanding that the Indian government do something is hypocritical while we use similar systems and we have the ability to let money and mobility influence the outcome for students at the expense of other students. Go and ask Finland what they do, because they’re happy to tell you how they fixed things but people don’t seem to want to actually do most of the things that they have done.
Interviewer: We’ve been talking for a while so we had better wrap up. What do you want people to understand?
Nick: What I always want people to understand – I want them to understand “why“. I want them to be able to think about and discuss why these images from a collapsing educational system is so sad. I want them to understand why our system is really no better. I want them to think about why struggling students do careless, thoughtless and, by our standards, unethical things when they see all the ways that other people are sliding by in the system or we don’t go to the trouble to construct assessment that actually rewards creative and innovative approaches.
I want people to understand that educational systems can be hard to get right but it is both possible and essential. It takes investment, it takes innovation, it takes support, it takes recognition and it takes respect. Why aren’t we doing this? Delaying investment will only make the problem harder!
Really, I want people to understand that we would have to do a very large amount of house cleaning before we could have the audacity to criticise the people in that photo and, even then, it would be an action lacking in decency and empathy.
We have never seen enough of a level playing field to make a meritocratic argument work because of ingrained privilege and disparity in opportunity.
Interviewer: So, basically, everything most people think about how education and exams work is wrong? There are examples of a fairer system but most of us never see it?
Nick: Pretty much. But I have hope. I don’t want people to stay sad or angry, I want those to ignite the next stages of action. Understanding, passion and action can change the world.
Interviewer: And that’s all we have time for. Thank you, Nick Falkner!