Disruptive Technologies and the more Democratic Future of Education?

Nearly every education based report I read these days is reiterating in some form the message that change is needed. There is general acceptance that these changes need to support students to be able to function effectively in an unknown and rapidly changing world. The life and work skills being defined as ‘necessary’ are evolving nearly as fast as everything else. Except it seems, our policy makers, educational institutions and even our teachers, who for the most part simply don’t know how to respond and certainly not as quickly as circumstances appear to require.

In journalist Adi Bloom’s TES article “Ofsted wants a change in the law so it can inspect multi-academy trusts”  Luke Tryl, Ofsted’s director of corporate strategy, is quoted as having said: “There has been a huge amount of change in the structure of education, and actually inspection legislation hasn’t kept pace with some of the changes”. The context for this comment was with reference to multi-academy trusts but can be equally applied across many areas of education today.

I was recently asked how OFSTED inspect 100% online delivery. I couldn’t answer and neither can anyone else I’ve asked. It’s conceivable that they will simply be able to extrapolate the existing Common Inspection Framework (CIC) to cover online delivery, but how effective is this? The updated ‘Further education and skills inspection handbook’, in use from September 2017, contains scant mention of online delivery. In fact, other than referring to their own surveys and safety online, it is mentioned just once on p. 45: “how well learners attend learning sessions and/or work regularly and punctually, including through participation in any distance learning activities, such as online learning and the use of virtual learning environments“. I would suggest that in light of the exponential proliferation of on-line education somewhat more than this is required.

I suspect though that things are beginning to overtake the education establishment faster than any care to admit. I’ve been reading reports urging change since around 2006, when the wonders of Web 2.0 first began to make their way into our classrooms. While the changes suggested, by researchers; case studies; forward thinkers; have remained fairly consistent, the urgency behind them has increased almost to panic level. The message is now closer to: ‘change or become extinct’.

I also suspect that in large part this paralysis in terms of the bigger shifts has as much to do with assessment as holding onto old habits. It’s all very well to suggest that students need new ‘collaborative’ skills or to choose their own learning paths, but how on earth do you keep control of this? How do you assess it, especially if they are all busy developing their collaborative skills in a whole host of new ways that aren’t necessarily constrained to the classroom? And how do you inspect organisations where this happens?

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  Stuck in the assessment equation? How to remove bricks without the wall crumbling?

Ok, the establishment is taking some steps to try and address these questions but in my opinion they are way too small and way too slow. Just take a look at the government’s proudly announced plan to introduce new “T Levels”. Julia Belgutay‘s TES article “First T levels subjects announced” (11th October 2017) quotes Justine Greening, Education Secretary, as having said the “government was transforming technical education in this country, developing home-grown talent so that Britain’s young people have the world-class skills and knowledge that employers need”. 

Have a closer look at the proposed timeline. Really? I fear that by the time this is implemented these will be obsolete.

The government’s plan for T levels:

•        2020 – three pathways delivered by a small number of providers

–        childcare and education (education pathway)

–        digital (software applications design pathway)

–        construction (building, services, engineering pathway)

•        2021 – all pathways from the first six “priority routes” delivered by selected providers

–        legal, finance, accounting (full route)

–        childcare and education (full route)

–        digital (full route)

–        construction (full route)

–        engineering and manufacturing (full route)

–        health and science (full route)

•        2022 – all pathways from all routes available to be delivered by providers that want to/are able

–        hair and beauty (full route)

–        agriculture, environment and animal care (full route)

–        business and administration (full route)

–        catering and hospitality (full route)

–        creative design (full route)

•        2024 – vast majority of providers offering T levels

What does Blockchain have to do with education?

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Blockchain is like a huge networked ledger – curated by the world and unchangeable.

Perhaps it’s time that we all really start to take on board the fact that the internet is no longer the disruptor in education, we’ve missed that one, too slow, it’s been around for 30 years now after all. Time for another disruption and this time it could be one that actually does lead to the extinction of education as we know it. Unless of course we educators figure out how to harness it and adapt our systems, structures, assessment processes, organisational cultures, methodologies and pretty much everything else.

I’m guessing that disruption will come in the form of Blockchain or something similar that democratises ownership of, well, pretty much everything. If the world can store open but unalterable records of every transaction, then power is shifted dramatically and could bypass the need for the traditional gatekeepers. If, for example, students collaborating in the common room or canteen, via online chat, through Web 2.0 platforms, their VR headsets or IoT devices, could log these as ‘learning events’, credits for learning could evolve in a whole new direction.

Some while ago during discussion with colleagues about how assessment could evolve to encompass change, I suggested that it might be shifted from the hands of educators, to the hands of employers. My idea was that students could study whatever interested them and as they progress through the education system this could become more guided and fine tuned towards their employment goals. However, rather than being examined at the end of school, college or university the ‘testing’ could fall to the employers, who would be free to decide how they would measure whether an applicant was suitable for their organisation. In this way ‘students’ could develop sets of skills useful for specific industries or wider employment. This suggestion was met with…total silence soon followed by a change of topic. As if I hadn’t spoken. I tried again on my module forum to a very similar response. But really, is it so bonkers?

I was of course delighted to come across this article by Audrey Watters (07-04-16) “The Blockchain for Education: an introduction” where the idea of using Blockchain to  tie learning to earning is presented:

“Onsite in Austin, the promotion of the “Learning is Earning” initiative was framed as a “think like a futurist” game and intertwined with a keynote delivered by well-known game designer and writer Jane McGonigal, who is a research affiliate at the Palo Alto-based IFTF.”

An excerpt from the “Learning is Earning” promotional video:

Welcome to the year 2026, where learning is earning. Your ledger account tracks everything you’ve ever learned in units called Edublocks. Each Edublock represents one hour of learning in a particular subject. But you can also earn them from individuals or informal groups, like a community center or an app. Anyone can grant Edublocks to anyone else. You can earn Edublocks from a formal institution, like a school or your workplace. The Ledger makes it possible for you to get credit for learning that happens anywhere, even when you’re just doing the things you love. Your profile displays all the Edublocks you’ve earned. Employers can use this information to offer you a job or a gig that matches your skills. We’ll keep track of all of the income your skills generate, and use that data to provide feedback on your courses. When choosing a subject to study in the future, you may wish to choose the subject whose students are earning the most income. You can also use the Ledger to find investors in your education. Since the ledger is already tracking income earned from each Edublock, you can offer investors a percentage of your future income in exchange for free learning hours. Our smart contracts make these agreements easy to manage and administer. The Ledger is built on blockchain, the same technology that powers bitcoin and other digital currencies. That means every Edublock that has ever been earned is a permanent part of the growing public record of our collective learning and working.

The article goes on to say “There’s a lot to unpack ideologically in this vision of the future of education and work…But the video hits on many of the key themes that are echoed across various other education-related blockchain discussions – that is to say, the blockchain could be utilized to better manage assessments, credentials, and transcripts. (See, for example OTLW or BadgeChain.)”

The article is well worth a read in full. For me it starts to bring focus to possible alternatives to our current outdated structure. Could a model really begin to emerge from this where we are not only able to choose where, when and how we learn but have a ‘recognised’ and valued system for logging this?

My own relationship with education sits in the ‘complicated’ category. This started when at the age of 15 I announced, to the horror of parents, teachers and school friends, that I was done with formal education and would do just what I wanted without the ‘stupid qualifications’. A rash stance for a 15 year-old to take but I was fortunate in that I was able to prove myself right, over time using my accumulating ‘life-learning’ to get my next job role and eventually some qualifications of my choice. I deliberately sought out situations that I knew I could enjoy and where I could learn as I worked, and sometimes these opportunities sought me out. However, I’m very aware that this strategy couldn’t work for everyone so while I’ve long been a promoter of ‘do what you love’, the flaw has always been there, alongside the argument “that route won’t get me, my son/ daughter, my student a job” which admittedly, while not true for me could be an issue for many. So, how great would it be if we could collect the crumbs of all our experiences to turn them into the currency of learning via something like Blockchain? And where would we teachers fit into that? I’m not worried about the future of teachers – I know there’s a place for them, but in what guise will that be?

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Curating the crumbs of experience into something meaningful or following a disappearing trail?