Narratives of change in education


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.

41 thoughts on “Narratives of change in education”

  1. Brilliant. Thanks for this really insightful piece. Well-argued, backed up by solid data, clearly thought through. I now have my key argument. Education is not a mass customer industry. It’s a personal client industry. Thanks Brendan.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Steve. Laurillard’s quote hit me like a slap in the face when I first read it – in retrospect it seems so obvious and commonsensical, but it needed to be framed in a simple statement.

      Looking at the really big technology deals that I have witnessed, they all have one key characteristic: the client-publisher relationship has always been elevated to a higher level. The amount of negotiation, support and engagement far exceed that of a book adoption. In this sense, the evidence seems to suggest that technology is emphasising rather than de-emphasising the personal-client model. At least in the real world.

  2. Thanks for this great commentary. You add a necessary perspective to this argument. I have a growing theory on why EDtech were/are able to attack publishers so effectively. For years in the ELT industry we (teachers) were sold products that were “supposedly better” than last year’s best edition (again and again for years). The products increased in complexity AND PRICE but arguably were no better. The publishing industry could probably have held the “cheaper, slicker, fancier” crowd at bay with clear evidence that newer products were significantly better than older products (customer loyalty being what it is). But whenever I asked publisher reps. for evidence of clear improvements it was never forthcoming.

    An industry that does not commit to clear improvements is asking for competitors to step in.

    In a way, publishers planted these seeds (the competition turning on price) because they, for so long, refused to compete against themselves in terms of quality. When quality improvements are not forthcoming it creates a great opportunity for new market entrants to compete on price.

    Of course, teachers don’t seem to understand that they will be swept away along with the old guard if Edtech has its way. My impression is they see teachers as cogs in the process rather than the keys to evolution.

    • Hi Michael,

      You make a very good point, indeed, regarding the importance of continued improvement of content: raising the quality bar is probably the best way forward for the old-school publishers. And, we may pay a high price if we forget that in our rush to build platforms and servers.

  3. Brilliantly written and cogently argued. And all the more important for having been written by someone inside the industry. It’s been a pleasure to follow the way your thinking (and passion!) has evolved over the years, Brendan. Thanks for this!

    • Thanks very much, Scott. I’m flattered.

      I was really disappointed at the Glasgow IATEFL (2012?) when a discussion session on digital publishing recoursed to statements such as ‘e-learning puts the learner at the centre of the learning process’ instead of taking some of the big issues head on. Interestingly, I could pin a massively bombed and expensive e-learning project on almost every panel member.

  4. A brilliant article by Brendan Wightman. Worth reading in your coffee break. It begs the question: Why do we blindly accept everything we are told when it comes to EdTech and switch off our brains? Is it because as teachers we feel unqualified to ask the critical questions that need asking? Just because you are using technology to teach doesn’t mean you are doing it better. Locking pages on a tablet goes against all the ethos of learner autonomy and personalised learning and shows no understanding of teaching methodology in the 21st century.

    • Thanks, Frances. I’m adamant that we all need to participate in this debate, as so many top-down decisions seem to completely by-pass teachers. We all need to be involved and take ownership of the future of education. It’s just too important to sit on the sidelines.

  5. Thanks for this insightful and well-argued commentary. For me technology is a tool and, like other educational tools, its success depends on how well it is used . It is not a good in itself. What worries me is how many of the digital/ adaptive learning programmes put out seem to be, in contrast to their self-promotion as 21st century state of the art education, reverting to earlier methods like behaviourist programmed learning.

    • Hi Jill,

      I agree totally regarding the way technology can be used to push us backwards from a methodological perspective. It leaves a massive chasm between the unfulfilled promise and the reality. There are, though, examples of real potential and progress. And here’s the thing: for me it’s really about ideas. Great ideas and tasks managed by a committed and talented teacher will always trump a ‘killer app’.

  6. Hi, Brendan! Being a keen technology user in education, I have to say I just loved your solid argument. I have felt myself trapped in the EdTech narrative of disruption some times. But Diane Laurillard’s quote ‘Education is not a mass customer industry: it is a personal client industry.’ and this question you pose: 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? are a really good starting point to discuss education change from a different perspective.
    I am happy that a big publisher has someone like you in their ranks and that I get the chance to work with you, Brendan!

    • Thanks, Vicky. If I’m honest, one of the many things that pisses me off about the no-change narrative is it denies the existence of teachers like you. There is also an almost unforgivable arrogance in the EdTech perspective that nothing useful can be learned from existing classrooms.

  7. Thanks a lot for this Brendan. I don’t have much to add to the other comments except hear hear. I really like how you unpicked the ‘classrooms have not changed’ argument and put it under scrutiny. Would love to see the same treatment administered to other tropes in our talks.

    • Thanks, Lindsay. What I would love to see is a post from you guys at The Round. It remains (The Round) the most exciting digital project I’ve seen in ELT: idealistic and practical in equal measure. Pure genius. Any chance of a post sharing what you’ve learned after a couple of years – how you are growing the list, how a collective of editors operates? What the response has been?

  8. Sorry Brendan – I’m not going to agree with the other commentators. That was difficult to read for me, long winded, slow to the point and I struggled all the way. It will gain admirers from ‘teachers’ more than learners I should imagine.
    I agree with most of your points but not the overall theme. Evolution happens without us. Past ‘conventions’ are universally proven wrong. I think of it as physics – and the theory that ‘we know nothing’. An example – language is built on ‘convention’ not rules. The only reason teachers teach is due to convention. The reason we have apostrophes is because of ‘convention’. A followed habit if you like, that will in time be broken. So, dear student you are not wrong for wondering why we have stupidity within English language learning. Indeed it is stupid and you are most welcome to question it. To question everything and I will not judge you with a ‘test’ – but I will engage you with argument. Which is in part why teaching is not keeping up, and why learners are falling behind. In the “English’ context methodology is dominated by the global publishers – with expensive books steeped in convention. Not for a minute considering the cost, built for profit not to democratize learning. I say this from personal experience. Students who buy books for learning are wealthy – and the rest don’t have access. So, the digital learning landscape is principally driven by challenging convention and delivering learning to people who could not afford it. It’s a process. The MOOC is now an x-mooc or c-mooc – evolving, with or without teachers. Sure, teaching and learning is built on relationships – but, personal relationships also require considerable one to one time (face to face online or offline) which is much easier and cheaper to deliver online. The big motivator being the reduction in costs and democratizing education – making it available and free to all. Non – exclusive.

    Back to work.

    ALl the best,

    • Hi Robert,

      Thanks for responding – and no need to apologise about being in disagreement. This is what this blog is about. Regarding the long-winded bit – I’m known for never being succinct. Again, I apologise.

      “The reason we have apostrophes is because of ‘convention’.”

      Indeed, but have you ever had a chance to read those ancient manuscripts you see in old, stately houses? A charter from a Tudor monarch? They’re nigh on impossible to read, and by the time you reach the end of even a small paragraph, you weep with gratitude for the conventions of punctuation. Stupid? Far from it – rather an essential set of orthographic tools that have facilitated greatly the path towards mass literacy.

      “To question everything and I will not judge you with a ‘test’ – but I will engage you with argument. Which is in part why teaching is not keeping up, and why learners are falling behind.”

      I’m certainly with the engage through argument process, but it’s one that will be even more labour-intensive than testing, and it’s also one that you tend to see less of (if at all) in transmission-only tech models. It also necessitates further the requirement of a teacher. Which was the point of my article, really.

      ” In the “English’ context methodology is dominated by the global publishers – with expensive books steeped in convention. Not for a minute considering the cost, built for profit not to democratize learning.”

      I’m afraid I can’t agree. ELT publishing is a ferociously competitive business, where price sensitivity is often high. Flexible pricing is applied across different markets as a matter of principal and survival. Making learning democratic is not the job of publishers – it’s a political responsibility. By the way, as a teacher, I imagine that you don’t work for free? Is the fact that you pull a salary an indication that you are working against the principle of free education for all?

      “So, the digital learning landscape is principally driven by challenging convention and delivering learning to people who could not afford it. “

      Is it? So much of what I have seen on the digital landscape looks surprisingly familiar – a direct homage to convention. A videoed lecture in a MOOC is still a lecture, and a short interactive quiz is a long way removed from an ‘engaged argument’.

      “Sure, teaching and learning is built on relationships – but, personal relationships also require considerable one to one time (face to face online or offline) which is much easier and cheaper to deliver online.”

      Always much cheaper online? Really? What if you don’t have a broadband internet connection, but you and your teacher live five minutes away from the point of instruction?

      “The big motivator being the reduction in costs and democratizing education – making it available and free to all. Non – exclusive.”

      Do you really think anything is ever free? So MOOCs don’t cost anything to run? Not true at all. And here’s a point that you may like to consider: UK universities running MOOCs are paying for it with the money they receive from fee-paying students. At £9,000 a year, your average undergrad of today might be wondering why they have to sponsor the post-grad learning of those who (certainly in the UK) got their first degree without paying directly for it. People like me (and maybe you, Robert?) will benefit from it, not them. In that sense it starts to look, to me at least, like this young generation is getting dumped on for a second time.

  9. Thank you, Brendan, for this thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. I wholeheartedly agree that education is about personal relationships and I struggle to see how emotional engagement – so key to learning – is aided by this new promised land of online delivery. I also agree with Jill that often the content being delivered doesn’t seem that new! At the same time, I am mindful of Marshall McLuhan’s thoughts on medium and message:

    “ “The medium is the message” because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action. What we are considering here, however, are the psychic and social consequences of the designs or patterns as they amplify or accelerate existing processes. For the “message” of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure.” (Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan, 1964)

    The question really is: what is the internet and online accessing of information doing to social interaction and, more generally, to our brains and the way we learn? I don’t know the answer. I can say that as a writer I feel it’s stifling my imagination (when I can’t think of an idea, I pretty quickly turn to Google to think for me). But like it or not, ultimately reject it or not, we educators have to factor in the new media to the way we learn and teach.

    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks very much for responding, and I appreciate the time and effort you’ve taken to make some interesting points.

      “The question really is: what is the internet and online accessing of information doing to social interaction and, more generally, to our brains and the way we learn?”

      I have a theory, and I expect many to disagree, that the way we learn hasn’t changed at all. 50,000 years of evolution that has wired our brains to inform even our most subtle instinctive responses won’t be overwritten by the internet in a short span of 20 years. That is not the same as saying the internet won’t change the way we behave, though, nor the dynamics of interaction.

      For me, one of the really big questions that needs to be explored is: how do we learn, and how can technology support this?

  10. Many thanks, Brendan
    ‘Education is not a mass customer industry: it is a personal client industry.’ One might argue that it is neither of these things. There are certainly industries within education, but the framing of ‘education’ itself as an ‘industry’ is heavily loaded. But if we must call it an ‘industry’, it will, like other industries, be subject to the laws of the market and be influenced by state legislation. If it’s going to be ‘a personal client industry’, it will be one where individuals make their choices from a competitive marketplace. As in any industry, there are producers and consumers / customers.
    The framing of every sphere of social and political activity as an industry (aid, health, pensions and education, for example) has a fascinating history. My favourite character from this history is John Franklin Bobbitt, who wrote ‘The Elimination of Waste in Education’ in 1912. He describes a school in Gary, Indiana, that was based on a factory model, led by an ‘educational engineer’. Students were referred to as ‘raw material’, and, best of all, instruction was differentiated. ‘Educate the individual according to his capabilities,’ wrote Bobbitt in an uncanny anticipation of adaptive learning. ‘This requires that the materials of the curriculum be sufficiently various to meet the needs of every class of individuals in the community; and that the course of training and study be sufficiently flexible that the individual can be given just the things he needs.’
    Just over a decade later, when much of this raw material had been sacrificed at the front, David Snedden followed Bobbitt’s Taylorist line of thought, and declared that science could take ‘education out of the stone age and into the industrial present’. ‘The fundamental idea in education … is to make men efficient,’ he wrote. He didn’t have Pearson’s resources to measure this efficiency, so, using the tools at hand, he went for IQ tests, instead.
    There is no compelling reason to conceptualize education as an industry, even though it is very common these days. So common, in fact, that it’s hard to tell the narrative with other words. I think it’s a pity that Laurillard chose the words she did, but I agree with everything she says in the article. Thanks for drawing my attention to it.

    • Hi Phillip,

      Thanks very much for your reply.

      I didn’t mean to ‘load’ the argument by referring to education as an industry. It is, of course, so much more than an industry: it is a birthright (to a point), it is a process of understanding the world, of socialisation (the list could go on). However, depending on how you define ‘industry’ there is scope to argue that there are certainly commercial factors involved.

      When a British university charges £9,000 for a year of undergraduate education (much more if you are an overseas student), it is behaving like a business. When teachers pull a salary, organise within a union, etc. they are behaving as professionals within an industry.

      I don’t have a problem with Laurillard’s use of ‘industry,’ and I think it can be used without loading it with a plethora of additional connotations.

    • Hi Mick,

      I was careful not to state that MOOCs had failed. But, I think early expectations have been disappointed. The reason for this, I would suggest, is that they haven’t yet replicated the kinds of relationships that you find on face-to-face courses. At least not without moving away from the free and open access model.

      I’ve done a distance learning course with moderators and tutors involved, and I know that it works – or at least it worked for me. However, this cost money, and I felt the support and guidance I received was well worth the investment. My feeling is that content alone won’t allow MOOCs to achieve the objectives set out in the initial vision.

  11. I’m not sure that 90% exclusion is a fair estimate, David. I’ve seen a more than a few classes where teachers are doing a good job with technology. Moreover, conferences like the excellent Image Conference in Barcelona last year are really contributing to the knowledge base.

    Interestingly, in a guardian article on Mitra recently, there were a significant number of teachers, who in their comments, stated that he should take a look in their classrooms for examples of progressive teaching with technology.

  12. Excellent commentary, Brendan. I’ve always instinctively had a problem with the ‘education is broken’ part of the narrative. Thanks for providing this great information and food for thought.

  13. ‘Education is not a mass customer industry: it is a personal client industry.’

    Isn’t this the conundrum that adaptive learning (‘using proprietary algorithms to deliver a personalized learning path for each student, each day’) is seeking to resolve?

    I understand that the major ELT publishers are busily trundling their heavy artillery towards this new field of engagement.

  14. Hi Tom,

    I’ll try and answer this question as honestly as I can, and with the caveat that these are only my opinions. It’s a very good question, and deserves a considered answer.

    The first thing to state is that a clear vision for adaptive learning hasn’t really been articulated by any publisher, and there are two reasons for this: firstly, the ‘potential’ benefits of an adaptive platform spread into a number of different areas (some solid, some conjectural) and so it doesn’t serve necessarily a single purpose; and, secondly, adaptive learning has never been used effectively with any humanities subject, let alone second language acquisition. We are about to see a very large experiment.

    Simply put, adaptive learning isn’t just about learning paths – it’s also about analytics. Even before we consider learning paths, the one meaningful aspiration of AL is harvesting better data on learner behaviour and performance in Learning Management Systems. Laurillard notes that MOOCs haven’t been able to show us much because they tell us nothing new about how, why and what is being learned, and certainly nothing about why learning isn’t happening. This isn’t just true of MOOCs, it’s true of most online courses, if human engagement is at a minimum.

    The process of tagging in excruciating detail all the exercises within a platform, crunching that data as learners work through tasks and then surfacing that data for teachers, learners and content creators presents us with some ‘possible’ benefits. We ‘may’ be able to better understand the learner experience, and at the very least data displays of a learner’s history and performance should be much improved. If you look at any platform now, the gradebook is a pretty clunky thing – both in terms of functionality and aesthetics. I consider data displays to be one area that can really improve, and realistically.

    Regarding learning paths (and how useful they may be), well, this is open to debate. If we assume that they can work (suspend your disbelief for a while), then their use would most likely be put towards set and defined goals, such as working towards very specific exam goals (in this sense the focus would be on targeted practice rather than learning), and/or the self-study elements and practice parts of a blended course.

    The vast majority of adaptive-driven courses (if they work out) would most likely be sold to teaching centres. In this sense, I don’t see the adaptive experiment as part of a move towards a mass-consumer model. How things start and end up, though, often differ. I could be wrong.

  15. Thanks for the kind words, Sue. I really believe that EdTech has to produce a clear vision if they are to be taken seriously, and their current complaint that the education system is broken isn’t enough. In fact, it’s predictably shallow: the norm for Silicon Valley businesses is to see themselves as both disrupters and saviours. It’s a very gratifying self-image, but not particularly helpful to any one but themselves.

    • “The norm for Silicon Valley businesses is to see themselves as both disrupters and saviours.”

      This reminds me of Neil Selwyn’s observation (in Distrusting Educational Technology, 2014)

      ‘What is particularly interesting about the umbrella term “educational technology” is its apparent ability to accommodate all these agendas (from the countercultural to the commercial) with little sense of incompatibility or conflict’. (p.38).

      • Very true, Scott. Education technology provides an endless flow of contradictions. Interestingly, there was a time when I used to describe myself as an ‘education technologist’ . I don’t anymore. What I’m really interested in is education. The really important questions start with how and why people learn. Until education technology addresses thesse basic issues, I’m afraid it won’t ‘grow up’.

  16. Hi Brendan,
    As an ELT teacher and trainer I found your article insightful and informative. I have become very interested in the EDtech but at the same time have had serious reservations about the use of adaptive learning tech tools and the all encompassing push for ALL things ‘techie’. As you clearly point out there is a lot of great teaching going on without the use of an abundance of interactive tools.
    Interestingly, next week I will begin a MOOC course in ICT in the Primary Classroom with Diane Laurillard as the course tutor.

    I’ll keep you posted!

    • Hi Sheona,

      Laurillard in a MOOC – fantastic! Please do keep us posted, and it would be great to have someone like you writing a blog on eltjam about the experience.

      For anyone who would like to join the course, there’s still time. Here’s the link:

      I first read Laurillard’s papers and research about 14 years ago, and I’ve been an admirer ever since. Best of luck with the course; and, again, please do share your experience. Your post just brought me my first smile of the day!


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