Tag: education (page 1 of 2)

Higher Education and blockchain

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the most useful applications of blockchain technologies are incredibly boring. That goes in education, too.

This post by Chris Fellingham considers blockchain in the context of Higher Education, and in particular credentialing:

The short pitch is that as jobs and education go digital, we need digital credentials for our education and those need to be trustworthy and automisable. Decentralised trust systems may well be the future but I don’t see that it solves a core problem. Namely that the main premium market for Higher Education Edtech is geared twards graduates in developed countries and that market — does not have a problem of trust in its credentials — it has a problem of credibility in its courses. People don’t know what it means to have done a MOOC/Specialization/MicroMasters in X which undermines the market system for it. Shoring up the credential is a second order problem to proving the intrinsic value of the course itself.

“Decentralised trust systems” is what blockchain aficionados refer to, but what they actually mean is removing trust from the equation. So, in hiring decisions, for example, trust is removed from the equation in favour of cryptographic proof.

Fellingham mentions someone called ‘Smolenski’ who, after a little bit of digging, must be Natalie Smolenski, who works for Learning Machine. That organisation is a driving force, with MIT, behind the Blockcerts standard for blockchain-based digital credentialing.

Smolenski however, is a believer, and in numerous elegant essays has argued blockchain is the latest paradigm shift in trust-based technologies. The thesis puts trust based technologies as a central driver of human development. Kinship was the first ‘trust technology’, followed by language and cultural development. Things really got going with organised religion which was the early modern driver — enabling proto-legal systems and financial systems to emerge. Total strangers could now conduct economic transactions by putting their trust in local laws (a mutually understand system for transactions) in the knowledge that it would be enforced by a trusted third party — the state. Out of this emerged market economies and currencies.

Like Fellingham, I’m not particularly enamoured with this teleological ‘grand narrative’ approach to history, of which blockchain believers do tend to be overly-fond. I’m pretty sure that human history hasn’t been ‘building’ in any way towards anything, particularly something that involves less trust between human beings.

Blockchain at this moment is a kind of religion. It’s based on a hope of things to come:

Blockchain — be it in credential or currency form …could well be a major — if not paradigmatic technology — but it has its own logic and fundamentally suits those who use it best — much as social networks turned out to be fertile grounds for fake news. For that reason alone, we should be far more cautious about a shift to blockchain in Higher Education — lest like fake news — it takes an imperfect system and makes it worse.

Indeed. Who on earth would want wants to hard code the way things are right now in Higher Education? If your answer is ‘blockchain-based credentials’, then I’m not sure you really understand what the question is.

Source: Chris Fellingham (via Stephen Downes)

On ‘academic innovation’

Rolin Moe is in a good position to talk on the topic of ‘academic innovation’. In fact, it’s literally in his job title: ‘Assistant professor and Director of the Institute for Academic Innovation at Seattle Pacific University”.

Moe warns, however, that it’s not necessarily a great idea to create a new discipline out of academic innovation. Until fairly recently, being ‘innovative’ was a negative slur, something that could get you in some serious trouble if you were found guilty.

[T]he historical usage of innovation is not as a foundational platform but a superficial label; yet in 2018 the governing bodies of societal institutions wield “innovation” in setting forth policy, administration and funding. Innovation, a term we all know but do not have a conceptual framework for, is driving change and growth in education. As regularly used without context, innovation is positioned as the future out-of-the-box solution for the problems of the present.

This makes the term a conduit of power relationships despite many proponents of innovation serving as vocal advocates for diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education. Thinking about revenue shortfalls in a time of national economic prosperity, the extraction of arts and humanities programs at a time when industry demands critical thinking from graduates, and the positioning of online learning as a democratizing tool when research shows the greatest benefit is to populations of existing privilege, the solutions offered under the innovation mantle have at best affected symptoms, at worst perpetuated causes.

Words and terms, of course, change over time. But, as Moe points out, if we’re to update the definition of innovation, we need a common understanding of what it means.

Coalescing around a common understanding is vital for the growth of “academic innovation,” but the history of innovation makes this concept problematic. Some have argued that innovation binds together disciplines such as learning technologies, leadership and change, and industrial/organizational psychology.

However, this cohesion assumes a “shared language of inquiry,” which does not currently exist. Today’s shared language around innovation is emotive rather than procedural; we use innovation to highlight the desired positive results of our efforts rather than to identify anything specific about our effort (products, processes or policies). The predominant use of innovation is to highlight the value and future-readiness of whatever the speaker supports, which is why opposite sides of issues in education (see school choice, personalized learning, etc.) use innovation in promoting their ideologies.

It seems to me that the neoliberal agenda has invaded education, as it does with any uncommodified available space, and introduced the language of the market. So we get educators using the language of Silicon Valley and attempting to ‘disrupt’ their institution.

If the goal of academic innovation is to be creative and flexible in the development, discovery and engagement of knowledge about the future of education, the foundation for knowledge accumulation and development needs to be innovative in and of itself. That must start with an operational definition of academic innovation, differentiating what innovation means to education from what it means to entrepreneurial spaces or sociological efforts.

That definition must address the negotiated history of the term, from the earliest application of the concept in government-funded research spurred by education policy during the 1960s, through overlooked innovation authors like Freeman and Thorstein Veblen. Negotiating the future we want with the history we have is vital in order to determine the best structure to support the development of an inventive network for creating research-backed, criticism-engaged and outside-the-box approaches to the future of education. The energy behind what we today call academic innovation needs to be put toward problematizing and unraveling the causes of the obstacles facing the practice of educating people of competence and character, rather than focusing on the promotion of near-future technologies and their effect on symptomatic issues.

While I’m sympathetic to the idea that educational institutions can be ‘stodgy’ places that can often need a good kick up the behind, I’m not entirely sure that academic innovation as a discipline will do anything other than legitimise the capitalist takeover of a public good.

Source: Inside Higher Ed (via Aaron Davis)

Intimate data analytics in education

The ever-relevant and compulsively-readable Ben Williamson turns his attention to ‘precision education’ in his latest post. It would seem that now that the phrase ‘personalised learning’ has jumped the proverbial shark, people are doubling down on the rather dangerous assumption that we just need more data to provide better learning experiences.

In some ways, precision education looks a lot like a raft of other personalized learning practices and platform developments that have taken shape over the past few years. Driven by developments in learning analytics and adaptive learning technologies, personalized learning has become the dominant focus of the educational technology industry and the main priority for philanthropic funders such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.


A particularly important aspect of precision education as it is being advocated by others, however, is its scientific basis. Whereas most personalized learning platforms tend to focus on analysing student progress and outcomes, precision education requires much more intimate data to be collected from students. Precision education represents a shift from the collection of assessment-type data about educational outcomes, to the generation of data about the intimate interior details of students’ genetic make-up, their psychological characteristics, and their neural functioning.

As Williamson points out, the collection of ‘intimate data’ is particularly concerning, particularly in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations.

Many people will find the ideas behind precision education seriously concerning. For a start, there appear to be some alarming symmetries between the logics of targeted learning and targeted advertising that have generated heated public and media attention already in 2018. Data protection and privacy are obvious risks when data are collected about people’s private, intimate and interior lives, bodies and brains. The ethical stakes in using genetics, neural information and psychological profiles to target students with differentiated learning inputs are significant.

There’s a very definite worldview which presupposes that we just need to throw more technology at a problem until it goes away. That may be true in some situations, but at what cost? And to what extent is the outcome an artefact of the constraints of the technologies? Hopefully my own kids will be finished school before this kind of nonsense becomes mainstream. I do, however, worry about my grandchildren.

The technical machinery alone required for precision education would be vast. It would have to include neurotechnologies for gathering brain data, such as neuroheadsets for EEG monitoring. It would require new kinds of tests, such as those of personality and noncognitive skills, as well as real-time analytics programs of the kind promoted by personalized-learning enthusiasts. Gathering intimate data might also require genetics testing technologies, and perhaps wearable-enhanced learning devices for capturing real-time data from students’ bodies as proxy psychometric measures of their responses to learning inputs and materials.

Thankfully, Williamson cites the work of academics who are proposing a different way forward. Something that respects the social aspect of learning rather than a reductionist view that focuses on inputs and outputs.

One productive way forward might be to approach precision education from a ‘biosocial’ perspective. As Deborah Youdell  argues, learning may be best understood as the result of ‘social and biological entanglements.’ She advocates collaborative, inter-disciplinary research across social and biological sciences to understand learning processes as the dynamic outcomes of biological, genetic and neural factors combined with socially and culturally embedded interactions and meaning-making processes. A variety of biological and neuroscientific ideas are being developed in education, too, making policy and practice more bio-inspired.

The trouble is, of course, is that it’s not enough for academics to write papers about things. Or even journalists to write newspaper articles. Even with all of the firestorm over Facebook recently, people are still using the platform. If the advocates of ‘precision education’  have their way, I wonder who will actually create something meaningful that opposes their technocratic worldview?

Source: Code Acts in Education

Microcast #004

Is it really a ‘skills gap’ that we should be talking about? What’s the real problem here?


The horror of the Bett Show

I’ve been to the Bett Show (formely known as BETT, which is how the author refers to it in this article) in many different guises. I’ve been as a classroom teacher, school senior leader, researcher in Higher Education, when I was working in different roles at Mozilla, as a consultant, and now in my role at Moodle.

I go because it’s free, and because it’s a good place to meet up with people I see rarely. While I’ve changed and grown up, the Bett Show is still much the same. As Junaid Mubeen, the author of this article, notes:

The BETT show is emblematic of much that EdTech gets wrong. No show captures the hype of educational technology quite like the world’s largest education trade show. This week marked my fifth visit to BETT at London’s Excel arena. True to form, my two days at the show left me feeling overwhelmed with the number of products now available in the EdTech market, yet utterly underwhelmed with the educational value on offer.

It’s laughable, it really is. I saw all sorts of tat while I was there. I heard that a decent sized stand can set you back around a million pounds.

One senses from these shows that exhibitors are floating from one fad to the next, desperately hoping to attach their technological innovations to education. In this sense, the EdTech world is hopelessly predictable; expect blockchain applications to emerge in not-too-distant future BETT shows.

But of course. I felt particularly sorry this year for educators I know who were effectively sales reps for the companies they’ve gone to work for. I spent about five hours there, wandering, talking, and catching up with people. I can only imagine the horror of being stuck there for four days straight.

I like the questions Mubeen comes up with. However, the edtech companies are playing a different game. While there’s some interested in pedagogical development, for most of them it’s just another vertical market.

In the meantime, there are four simple questions every self-professed education innovator should demand of themselves:

  • What is your pedagogy? At the very least, can you list your educational goals?
  • What does it mean for your solution to work and how will this be measured in a way that is meaningful and reliable?
  • How are your users supported to achieve their educational goals after the point of sale?
  • How do your solutions interact with other offerings in the marketplace?

Somewhat naïvely, the author says that he looks forward to the day when exhibitors are selected “not on their wallet size but on their ability to address these foundational questions”. As there’s a for-profit company behind Bett, I think he’d better not hold his breath.

Source: Junaid Mubeen

Can you measure social and emotional skills?

Ben Williamson shines a light on the organisation behind the PISA testing regime moving into the realm of social and emotional skills:

The OECD itself has adopted ‘social and emotional skills,’ or ‘socio-emotional skills,’ in its own publications and projects. This choice is not just a minor issue of nomenclature. It also references how the OECD has established itself as an authoritative global organization focused specifically on cross-cutting, learnable skills and competencies with international, cross-cultural applicability and measurability rather than on country-specific subject achievement or locally-grounded policy agendas.

I really can’t stand this kind of stuff. Using proxies for the thing instead of trying to engender a more holistic form of education. It’s reductionist and instrumentalist.

This project exemplifies a form of stealth assessment whereby students are being assessed on criteria they know nothing about, and which rely on micro-analytics of their gestures across interfaces and keyboards. It appears likely that SSES, too, will involve correlating such process metadata with the OECD’s own SELS constructs to produce stealth assessments for quantifying student skills.

If you create data, people will use that data to judge students and rank them. Of course they will.

However, over time SSES could experience function creep. PISA testing has itself evolved considerably and gradually been taken up in more and more countries over different iterations of the test. The new PISA-based Test for Schools was produced in response to demand from schools. Organizations like CASEL are already lobbying hard for social-emotional learning to be used as an accountability measure in US education—and has produced a State-Scan Scorecard to assess each of the 50 states on SEL goals and standards. Even if the OECD resists ranking and comparing countries by SELS, national governments and the media are likely to interpret the data comparatively anyway.

This is not a positive development.

Source: Code Acts in Education

Education is about the journey, not the destination

I’m a big fan of Cathy Davidson, and look forward to reading her new book. In this article, she explains that we’ve unleashed an ‘educational monster’ by forcing students to be memorisers rather than content creators:

Increasingly, we are shrinking educational opportunities for our youth worldwide, robbing them of the creativity of the arts, the critical thinking of the humanities and social sciences, and reducing all knowledge to test scores, despite repeated workforce studies stressing the importance of deep learning. The trend is to use standardised tests as the entrance to university and therefore to a middle-class future, even though we have ample research, extending back to the Hermann Ebbinghaus memory experiments of the 1880s, about the evanescence of knowledge crammed for the purpose of test-taking.

As ever with Cathy’s writing, it’s a good and well-researched read. I’m not sure about framing it in terms of ‘outcomes-based’ education, however, as judging people by outcomes in the workplace is generally seen as a good thing. Perhaps emphasise that the journey is more important than the destination? That’s why granular badges within a portfolio are a great alternative to letter grades and high-stakes testing.

Source: The Guardian

The Horizon stops here

Audrey Watters is delightfully blunt about the New Media Consortium, known for their regular ‘Horizon reports’, shutting down:

While I am sad for all the NMC employees who lost their jobs, I confess: I will not mourn an end to the Horizon Report project. (If we are lucky enough, that is, that it actually goes away.) I do not think the Horizon Report is an insightful or useful tool. Sorry. I recognize some people really love to read it. But perhaps part of the problem that education technology faces right now – as an industry, as a profession, what have you – is that many of its leaders believe that the Horizon Report is precisely that. Useful. Insightful.

Source: Hack Education

Put a number next to someone’s name and there will be pressure for it to increase

In her review of Daniel Koretz’s new book on testing in schools, Diane Ravitch reminds us of Campbell’s law:

In 1979, the psychologist Donald Campbell proposed an axiom. “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making,” he wrote, “the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Ravitch applies this to high-stakes testing in school, using a story from Soviet Russia to bring the point home:

The classic (and probably apocryphal) illustrations of Campbell’s law come from the Soviet Union. When workers were told that they must produce as many nails as possible, they produced vast quantities of tiny and useless nails. When told they would be evaluated by the weight of the nails, they produced enormous and useless nails. The lesson of Campbell’s law: Do not attach high stakes to evaluations, or both the measure and the outcome will become fraudulent.

High stakes testing in schools is pernicious, Ravitch writes:

The children from elite homes are convinced by their test scores that they deserve their high status; their scores demonstrate their superiority. And children of the poor learn early on that they rank poorly; their test scores confirm their lowly status.

Source: New Republic

Does it take Trump to make badges go mainstream?

Perversely, it might take something like the Trump administration to make Open Badges work at scale. Why? Because Republicans don’t trust Higher Education:

Is support for higher ed fragmenting along political lines? It is if you believe the recent Pew poll showing Republicans’ distrust of higher ed is growing relative to Democrats (on a nearly 2-to-1 margin) is not fake news… In any case, look for Trump’s Department of Education to push on the trend toward more “practical” vocational learning and not just apprenticeships. Higher Ed Act proposals this year may push to open up federal financial aid beyond the credit-hour.

Things, of course, are different in the US to the rest of the world. In Europe I think we’ve always had a different, and more positive, relationship to vocational education.

Source: Education Design Lab