Thursday, 14 November 2013

#edcmooc The Teacher as Technologist?

The first two videos posted for us by the EDCMOOC folks this week come from corporate sources, showing how their products might shape the future of learning.

The first thing that sprang to my mind when watching them was the extent to which the film Minority Report continues to influence visions of future technology. It was released eleven years ago (really?!) and since then we've come some way down the path of touchscreens (tablets, smartphones) and movement-controlled devices (Kinect) but never really got to the point of those amazing, fluid, interactive 3D walls, allowing multiple users to call up and engage with any content (all beautifully rendered), seemingly from any and all possible sources.

It's interesting that tech companies are still inspired by parts of what was certainly a dystopian story. And they still see - and project - this vision for Human Computer Interaction in particular, as a goal that they (and society as a whole) should be striving for.

There's a great article about the lasting effects of Minority Report on the people who've shaped technology over the last decade, over at 'Overthinking It'. There's definitely an interesting debate to be had about whether popular culture predicts technological advancements or whether, conversely, technological advancement is inspired and driven by popular culture.

For me it's not so much a question of whether the visions Intel and Corning are setting out are utopian or dystopian - there are clearly positives and negatives to be taken from them both. My immediate reaction was about how the 'systems' they suggest could work, practically, away from the glossy, manufactured sheen of the advertising film, and what the implications might be if, to whatever extent, the realities fell short of the ideals.

Films - and advertising films especially - are, of course, by nature not balanced and objective. So we must think about the kinds of things these two companies are suggesting and try to work out whether they would actually be practical - or desirable - in the kinds of educational settings we are familiar with today.

One thing which struck me is the extent to which advances in technology could force teachers and academics to become technologists - experts in technology rather than simply experts in their particular field.

What is the fate for those who refuse to (or simply cannot) go along this path? And what knowledge and experience could learners miss out on because of this?

I'm familiar with some of the challenges posed by current online learning technology. Uploading text documents - never mind audio and video or complex multimedia content - to a relatively straight-forward web-based VLE system can be difficult for some. Much of the learning experience for the learner crucially depends on the degree of digital literacy of the teacher or academic.

Looking at the beautiful table-top and interactive wall displays in the Corning video, my thought was "Who is going to create and manage all this content?". Does this vision suggest that the teacher will in future need to be graphic designer, data architect, content curator, computer programmer?

The other question that struck me was how much freedom and creativity in teaching might actually be restrained by the use of such technology, in the sense that the tools available to the teacher might restrict what can and can't be taught, or the way in which that knowledge can be presented.

In this new 'system', which canonical sources are used for the core information, which websites can and can't be trawled for images of bridges, which tablets and software will be compatible? And who decides this kind of thing? The teacher or the company supplying and installing the technology?

The role of corporations in education is something that is often provokes controversy. The feeling that large companies might be gaining some measure of control over education at the expense of teachers and local authorities, however innocuous it might seem, would likely be resisted by many.

That's not to say that there aren't positives for me in all this. The possibilities for the use of 3D printing technology in the classroom are exciting. And the idea of better real-time connectivity between the bubble of the classroom and the people and places in the world outside certainly has potential.

But bringing it all together in a workable way - and for the good of the learner - is a big challenge.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

#edcmooc The Victorian Internet

Tom Standage, "The Victorian Internet" (1999)

I read this book a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was published in 1999, before the dotcom bubble burst and the rise of Web 2.0 and before current thinking and practice around online learning had really got going.

But still, it provides a fascinating insight into the development of the telegraph, the disruptive impact it had on society and culture and the fears its spread elicited.

It's intriguing to note how many of these same debates were, and are, being repeated in the Internet age. Some of the parallels are fascinating and suggest that many of the debates we are having aren't quite as original as we might think...

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

#edcmooc Technology and education - sacred cows?

This is a nice animation, the first required viewing for the #EDCMOOC

It got me thinking about how the history of both education and technology, and how both have been treated - almost worshipped - and kept sacred.

It's not so long ago that education itself was reserved for the elite. It was protected, kept away from those deemed unworthy. Religious learning - perhaps the precursor to modern formal education - was for a long time kept in the Latin language only known to the powerful and learned, to be controlled and meted out as the upper classes deemed appropriate.

Only a few decades ago computers were things that only government or large corporations could afford to own and maintain, and the idea of one one day being in a family home was unthinkable.

In the animation, new technology is mysteriously delivered to the little people from on high.

In recent years both education (and especially Higher Education) and technology (and especially computers and, subsequently, the Internet) have been espoused as 'saviours' and politicians and corporations have all spent time, effort and money trying to get more and more people into each. In the UK we had the BBC Micro, "computers for schools" campaigns and government-backed broadband rollout schemes. We also had new Universities formed and huge drives to increase access.

Now, more people than ever before have access to education and technology. It's now the cultural norm. Most children in the UK will go on to Further or Higher Education. Almost all will have what are essentially supercomputers in their pockets when they do. Both of these were unthinkable mere decades ago. The messages we receive about this are overwhelmingly that these are Good Things.

But there could be downsides, as this dystopian vision of technology hints.

Perhaps the fact that we've accepted these messages uncritically for so long is one of them?

Perhaps we need to be more critical about what education is for - and what technology is for. And about whether, perhaps in their current forms, we place too much emphasis on them, hold them too sacred?

A study of e-learning and the MOOC - with the potential disruption to the future nature of education it suggests - would seem to be a good way to take a fresh look at both.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

#edcmooc embarkation thoughts

For better or worse, I'm about to embark upon my first MOOC, the "e-learning and Digital Cultures" MOOC (#edcmooc), offered through Coursera by the University of Edinburgh. [Full disclosure: These nice people just happen to be my employers, and I work in the field of learning technology, but any association ends there. I work in a completely different school from the organisers and I don't know any of the "answers", honest ;-)  ]

I'm doing this because I'm interested in technology, digital media and digital culture and I work in education. As someone who has been through (as a student), and worked in, a variety of traditional bricks-and-mortar Universities, I'm fascinated by the potential for the future of learning and teaching, of which MOOCs are just a part.

From the somewhat unfamiliar perspective as a learner, however, I'm sceptical about the prospects for the experience. Can a learner really obtain as rich an experience through watching online videos and tweeting other, similarly remote, students? Can even the best, most innovative online technologies replace the lecture, the seminar, the group work and discussion? Will such a 'Massive' group really make for a clear, focused learning experience?

One of the main advantages of the MOOC format over traditional courses - for the University - is of course cost. And, if I allowed him, the cynic in me could say that in these hard times it's not surprising that Universities are looking for ways to cut costs even further. If MOOCs take off in a big way will I soon be out of a job?

So what are the possibilities and the dangers? Is technology a force for good or evil (or something entirely neutral)? There are a lot of interesting questions that I'm looking forward to exploring.