Here’s a story, first expounded by Seymour Papert in 1993. It has since been recounted manifold times, though with floating variables.
A doctor and a teacher from the 19th century climb into a time machine (possibly built by a Silicon Valley dude trying to disrupt the past) and travel to the 20th/21st century. The doctor visits an operating theatre, where he witnesses triple-bypass heart surgery. He emerges from the experience in a state of rapturous wonderment at the achievements of modern science. The teacher finds himself, coincidently – this isn’t a set up – in a modern classroom, where he sees a chalkboard, some desks and books, and a fellow teacher in front of rows of children, dictating notes to them. However, he questions whether he’s really travelled in time at all – for surely, this classroom is almost identical to the one he left behind in a smog-filled Victorian metropolis?
This type of story has a name: it is called a ‘no-change’ narrative, and it is used as a stick to prod, poke, and sometimes to bash both teachers and the education system, depending on who’s holding the stick. The message, regardless of narrative variation and embellishment, is consistent: education hasn’t changed or progressed in centuries: Levine (Udacity investor) suggests 1000 years of stagnation, whilst Mitra, in his acceptance speech for his TED award in 2013, represented the schooling system as an uninterrupted legacy of colonialism, designed to mass-produce clerks to service the expansion of a now-obsolete, commercial empire.
It’s a good story, and which forward-looking educator wouldn’t rally behind such a cause? The problem is that this narrative misleads as much as it informs because it negates and denies the huge progress (giant steps for all of mankind) made in education over the last half century. If we return briefly to the 19th century classroom, you would probably wonder where the girls are (learning to sew, maybe?), where the handicapped kids are (possibly locked up in an asylum), and the ones with learning problems (in the asylum, too?), why the curriculum is focused exclusively on reading, writing, arithmetic and religion, why no one is talking about contraception? The list, by the way, could go on for ever. And, we haven’t even discussed the thousands of schools that are using technology in the classroom now on a daily basis: the UK alone has invested more than £1billion in the last decade in education technologies for state primary and secondary schools.
One of the huge ironies of being lectured at by education technology companies and some of their apologists is that their own track record and rhetoric are often soaked in conservatism – a key factor that they censor out of their narrative. The incessant insistence, for example, that we have to change our schools to service the needs of the modern work environment is an argument straight out of the Victorian handbook. The Education Act of 1877 was driven by the demands of Britain’s transition from a mercantile to industrial economy, where a literate workforce was essential for all the trade data that flooded in. However, we have moved on, and while it is true that preparing young people for the workforce is one important factor, we are now smart enough to realise it is not the only consideration. Schools are precious social institutions where people of disparate backgrounds come together in a social contract, where young people are socialised, and where learning enriches lives. We have, in short, a concept of the public good, which must necessarily involve a large number of interested parties, and this needs to be recognised within any alternative manifesto for the future of schools. Not that EdTech has one (a manifesto), but if they ever get around to writing one, they would do well to remember this.
As for tech companies teaching us all about innovation – we need look no further than the annual yawn-fest of predictability that is the BETT ‘Education’ show. The BETT show is where all the educational technology companies, publishers and tech giants gather to show off and hawk their most recent products every year in London.
To this point I present Exhibit A (see accompanying pictures): a free mug, acquired last year, from a company selling space on their VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) to British schools. The VLE is used to upload and archive homework assignments, nothing else, and its central selling point is one of delivery and surveillance. This is something that our Victorian teacher would have responded to immediately (not to mention the Stasi, too), and it presents one of the interesting paradoxes of education technology: new technologies can be (and often are) used to reinforce the most restrictive of instructional practices. I keep this mug, by the way, on my desk (for reasons I may unpick one day with a therapist) in pristine condition: it’s not a vessel for beverage consumption, it’s a reminder.
Further evidence came this year at BETT, where the newish, shiny kid on the block was the tablet, or rather the controlling software that allows the teacher to lock the screen of students’ tablets to a single course book page – a control mechanism beyond the wildest dreams of most unreconstructed educators. In one fell swoop, a potentially powerful constructivist tool is reduced to a dull, creatively blunt artefact. The book remains infinitely more radical than a tablet used in this way.
Please forgive me, then, given the points above, if I look the technology ‘innovators’ in the eye and ask: you are shitting me, right?
Another no-change narrative that I’m starting to see more frequently within the framework of discussions on EdTech is that of ‘slow-to-change’ publishers, who will no doubt pay the ultimate price of obsolescence for their inherent conservatism: there was one such ‘trope’ on the eltjam infographic on EdTech recently. Also note Laurie Harrison’s comment on publishers not surviving the EdTech onslaught at ELTjam’s IATEFL talk this year. This could be partially true, but I feel that it won’t (if it happens) be because of a refusal to change, but rather the costs incurred as part of the change; or, simply because of different economic factors that have little to do with EdTech.
In the ten-plus years I have been working for one of the larger publishers, I have seen remarkable change across the board. The level of investment in digital content, products and platforms has veritably exploded, as have the digital teams employed in-house: the investment demands have been immense, and they have all come with an opportunity cost. The ‘no-change’ commentary just doesn’t add up or make sense to me.
And, over the years I have sat through the talks of more digital gurus preaching imminent change to my employer than I can shake a stick at. We engaged with them all, and in some cases invested a lot of money that never came back – in retrospect, what we were doing was gambling on the future. Needless to say, none of these digital fire-and-brimstone sermons ever showed us the true path to future salvation – in fact, they were all wide of the mark. And here is the one thing that I have learned: narratives about future change are not ‘predictive’, they are ‘prescriptive’. When someone tells you ‘this is what will happen’ what they really mean is ‘this is what I think should happen’ or ‘this is what I want to happen.’ This of course leads me to the EdTech ‘movement’ – what does it mean, what are they really saying?
The prevailing narrative of EdTech is that the education system is broken. Is it? It certainly isn’t universally successful, and it does leave too many behind, and like any system it can always be improved. But is it broken? The problem with the EdTech story is that it has no real trajectory, not even one that engages with the present – they won’t tell us what is broken, nor how it will be fixed, and with what? In this sense, we are invited to employ blind belief in a process that elevates EdTech ideology beyond story and myth into the realms of dogma. The EdTech afterlife of education will be better than what we are suffering now – we just need to have faith. For all the criticisms levelled at Mitra, he is at least trying to chart a map towards an alternative, and he deserves credit for this – we can critique Mitra, regardless of his cartographic skills, because he is at least giving us something. It is much more difficult to do this, though, with the vague, idealistic slogans of EdTech – it feels like we’re chasing shadows.
So can we disentangle key EdTech (minus Mitra) coordinates within a nebulous vision? Let’s start with the EdTech poster project: MOOCs. The origins of MOOCs could be argued or discussed ad infinitum, and there are now too many MOOCs in the cloud to discuss each one of them in detail. A simple case study, though, might start with Sebastian Thrun, a former professor at Stanford University, who placed his course Introduction to Artificial Intelligence online in 2011. What followed was truly extraordinary: 160,000 students enrolled from 190 different countries, and, what’s more, when the end of course assessment was conducted, none of the top 400 places were taken by his Stanford students – they were all cloud students. The vision was taking shape: free, open access education of the highest level, delivered at almost no cost, direct to the consumer. Or, as an investor in Thrun’s company, Udacity, put it: ‘Imagine – you can hand a kid in Africa a tablet and give him Harvard on a piece of glass!’. Or even better (according to the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman): ‘Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty.’
These are big, bold and noble statements. Unfortunately, there has been a mismatch between the early ambition and euphoria associated with MOOCs and actual results. A plethora of data has now become available on student performance and demographics in MOOCs, and they conflict very much with the MOOC narrative. Consistently across MOOCs, we find that less than 10 % of students who take a MOOC course complete it, and not all of those pass. Additionally, the majority of students who progress through the courses already hold degrees – these are not underprivileged street urchins from the developing world. In fact, MOOCs might be instrumental in exposing one of the darker secrets of educational technology – that it is very likely (unless regulated) to become a tool that cements further the advantages of the educationally privileged.
The set of cards that most universities are withholding in their MOOC offerings are the three aces of accreditation, tutoring and placement. These, students will have to pay for, as the benevolence ends with free content. Going back to the Udacity project, it’s interesting that Thrun has brought these in as part of a commercial package that requires payment, albeit at a lower price than standard university modules. And even with this support a recent comparative project showed the face-to-face educational model to outperform the MOOC in a pass rates measurement by 52%. This data, by the way, comes from Udacity themselves: they may have underperformed, but they’re not cowboys. I respect Thrun’s honesty – it certainly gives me hope.
Have MOOCs failed, then? The two flashpoints that underpin their vision (free education and support for the underprivileged) have met with disappointment, but … we now know more than we did before, and MOOCs might still reinvent themselves in a way that really makes a difference. For me, though, the reason I find the MOOC project (the idealism and the unexpected disappointment) so interesting is because it brings the tenets of EdTech ideology into sharp focus. It does so because EdTech’s envangelism and insatiable appetite for change and disruption ran headlong into some potentially immutable forces.
Here I defer to the analysis of Diane Laurillard. For those of you who haven’t read Laurillard, please do: she is perhaps academia’s most authoritative and experienced voice on online learning. She is also (in my opinion) to EdTech and MOOCs what Charles Darwin is/was to creation myths. One key point that Laurillard made in her Guardian article Five myths about MOOCs that stood out for me was this:
‘Education is not a mass customer industry: it is a personal client industry.’
From this single statement, we get to the heart of the matter – education as we know it today is ‘mostly’ about relationships, apart from one pocket (the self-study segment). It is not (yet?) an entertainment product like songs that can be distributed at lightning speeds across digital networks on a Spotify platform, and the objective is not just content delivery – it is knowledge construction (for most interested parties). This involves an expert or experienced other to provide structure, guidance and, most importantly, feedback. And it does cost money: education (and educational publishing) is an industry that relies heavily on human resources.
Taking Laurillard’s criticisms into account, I find Thrun’s Udacity project particularly interesting because he has gone a long way towards addressing many of the issues. Udacity started out with MOOC ideals, and a vision that education could be provided through a ‘mass-customer’ model, with all the (apparent) cost-savings this might imply. However, in order to improve the service and make it sustainable, Thrun had to pull it back towards the ‘personal client’ model. And what we end up with is a compromise of sorts, though one that looks very similar to many university distance learning programmes.
Here’s the data: a face-to-face college course on remedial math cost $450 (at San Jose University), whilst a Udacity course (inclusive of online moderators) cost $150. Students enrolled on a face-to-face course were 52% more likely to pass the course than the Udacity students. Simply put, every additional $5/6 spent on face-to-face instruction resulted in a 1% increase in the possibility of passing the course. These are, of course, blunt and simple calculations, and this is only one example, but I like it because we see a lofty EdTech ideal brought into the real world – narrative turned to action, where the script has to be re-written and stage set reworked (inclusive of the introduction of moderators, student payments, a shift from academic to vocational instruction, and a re-focusing of demographic targets). From this we see options emerge with different levels of teacher involvement and realistic re-calibrations of costing models, and (most importantly) the impact of selecting one option over the other.
Returning, then, to the EdTech narrative – education hasn’t changed in 100/300/1000 years (depending on the commentator), and is propped up by slow-to-change educational publishers, and is therefore ripe for disruption: what does this mean? Education is broken: what does that mean? Why rip everything down and start from scratch, when you could look at successful schools and identify best practise as a foundation block for change? Why promulgate the no-change narrative with such fervour when the facts don’t add up?
I’ve scratched my head about these questions for a while now in trying to make sense of the EdTech ‘movement’. And the long-winding (long-winded?) reflection on MOOCs (apologies) and Laurillard’s astute statement has provided some clarity for me:
‘Education is not a mass customer industry: it is a personal client industry.’
My view on the EdTech narrative is this: Silicon Valley start ups cannot penetrate a ‘personal-client’ industry without a serious revision of their modus operandi. It’s expensive, labour-intensive and you have to be a ‘stayer’ as Thrun has shown – you need to go the distance and slog it out, which isn’t a sexy pitch to most venture capitalists. Their best bet is to try and shift the relationship dynamics towards a mass-customer model, which would blow the market right open. This is why education, for EdTech, needs to be completely re-invented – and the re-invention has nothing to do with a revolution in content design or methodology, it’s all about the business model. When ELTjam post a blog asking what ELT can learn from Spotify, the real question being asked is: can ELT shift to a mass-consumer model? Would it work in any capacity? It’s a good question, by the way – I’m not criticising the blog or the author.
When schools and publishers are painted with a large, messy no-change brush by EdTech evangelists, what they are really saying is this: trade publishers, the music industry and countless service industries have all gone mass-consumer, why haven’t you?
Narratives are important, and we neglect them at our peril. A repeated story over time acquires mythical status – by this I don’t mean that it enjoys the status of the Loch Ness monster, but rather it starts to become an unquestioned fact, independent of context. Lindsay Clandfield’s blog on tropes shed light on how certain ‘ideas’ if repeated often enough anchor in our shared dialogue and then emerge without being questioned or qualified. The problem, of course, as noted in many of the comments, is that many of these ‘tropes’ contain an element of truth. Our responsibility is to scrutinise and drill down to the details of any story. This is crucially important now at a time when pressure for change is coming from all directions (once it was just top-down), and the rhetoric that accompanies it is often loud, inflated and loaded – enough to make your ears bleed. Remember that narratives of the future are prescriptive, rather than predictive – don’t let anyone unilaterally tell our story (the story of education) for us.