Sunday, May 24, 2015

Shifting bricks. Am I the only person who loathes lego?

I'm a fan of educational technology but not of LEGO. I have twin boys, well not so much boys as men now, so had to clean out their lairs. A shocking discovery was the massive amount of expensive, polluting plastic, we had bought, lying around in boxes. But it’s not just the unsustainable waste, it’s the blockhead bullshit that surrounds the corporation’s educational PR, the simplistic but ultimately hollow promises of the ‘LEGO’ corporation. 
1. Abrickadabra
I want to start by saying that I think the word ‘creative’ is the most overused and certainly one of the most abused words in education. With LEGO it reaches new levels of hyperbole. Place pre-designed blocks one by one on top of each other, or worse build pre-designed models in a pre-set order, add little pre-designed figures and ‘abrickadabra’, the false promise of creativity is fulfilled.
Most modern LEGO comes in the form of inflexible pieces that have to be used in a pre-set way, even left and right or orientated, as they are figures, vehicles, whatever. LEGO has moved away from reusable bricks to building pre-set, usually branded, models. I can’t see how this is in any way ‘creative’. If anything, their approach limits imagination. As a builder you’re a factory worker assembling the ‘product’.
2. Playing around
Granted, old-school, brick LEGO does allow for some imaginative play but let’s not turn this into some great breakthrough in learning and education. I’d much rather my kids built dens, climbed trees and played sport. Encourage some risk taking - take apart a washing machine, play with fire, throw a spear and make things with a pocket knife. Playing with blocks is OK but it’s predictable play with not enough freedom to express yourself, learn something new and push the boundaries.
3. Pollution
It was Greenpeace, who last year forced LEGO to abandon their stupid and disastrous partnership with Shell Oil (what were they thinking). The now famous video ‘LEGO: Everything is not awesome’. Then, there’s the 4.8 million pieces of LEGO pieces lost at sea in the Tokio Express, that are still being washed up on beaches today. Let’s keep it simple, LEGO doesn’t biodegrade., it pollutes our planet.
4. You’re being used
You, as a parent, you may also be polluting the minds of your children and paying for the privilege. With LEGO, you effectively pay to extend the marketing of other franchised brands, such as Star Wars or Harry Potter. LEGO has cleverly manipulated you into being a marketing machine for others. You are being manipulated, not into stimulating the imagination of your child but making him or her a pawn in their viral marketing game. They design you buy and reproduce their design,
5. Daily Mail!
No surprise that LEGO did a deal with the Daily Mail to distribute free mini-LEGO toys (redeemable at WH Smith and ToysRUs, so that you’ll be pressed ganged into buying more than you intend or need). That’s exactly the parent demographic I’d be hitting, Parents who don’t know shit but are desperate to get their little Johnnies and Jennies ahead in the game. The good news is that it a con.
6. Bricks not clicks
They’ve been clever in holding back the digital tide, by making a movie and some maker stuff. Mindstorms, the LEGO packs that teach programming, robotics etc. sort of annoy me. Here’s why.  Nothing wrong with the idea but by this point the LEGO blocks have become somewhat irrelevant. You’re an expert in plastic blocks one minute then an education expert in coding etc. the next. That’s just jumping on the bandwagon.
7. Expensive
Let me deliver this straight up. Your product is just too damn expensive., sometimes insanely expensive. As a parent you’re being conned into paying top dollar for some cheap plastic. The blocks are made from thermoplastic, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, which is very strong but it’s basically plastic made from oil, so the price of oil largely determines the operational profit. strong, So why the And don’t get me started on Legoland. Never have I experienced a more dispiriting, fake, branded and fake experience.
Conclusion
Toy manufacturers need to sell toys to children and it helps of they can convince parents of their education worth. With LEGO you have to suspend belief in green policy, sustainability and evidence-based education to buy into their claims, which are clearly part of a clever marketing strategy. Let’s be clear, this is the insidious side of privatisation in education, fooling parents and bribing teachers into shifting product. Hooking parents and kids into buying over-riced plastic on the wrong assumption that it’s ‘educational’.

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Monday, May 18, 2015

Education not the panacea for all economic problems

Whenever league tables are announced, cue the current OECD table, outrageous claims are made linking education to economic health and growth. Yet the evidence that education, in particular Higher Education, is the key driver of economic growth is dubious. The often unquestioned claim is that GDP and other measures of productivity and economic growth will rise with absolute certainty, if only we invested more in education. This view is extolled largely by educationalists, not economists.
Harvard’s Lant Prichart, formerly of the World Bank, did the data crunching and in a now famous article ‘Where has all the education gone?’ found little evidence between education and higher economic growth. Cambridge economist, Ha-Jon Chang refutes the idea that  ‘more education in itself is not going to make a country richer’ and there are plenty of counter examples.
Examples
So let’s look at the top eight performers in the latest OECD list; Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Finland, Estonia, Switzerland – there’s some interesting evidence on these.
Taiwan (5) had an appalling literacy rate in 1960 at 54%, much lower than the Philippines at 72%. South Korea (3) had a literacy rate of 71%, much lower than many countries that failed to deliver economic growth, such as Argentina and most of the Eastern block. Education was not the primary driver behind the Asian economic miracle. It was much more complicated, based on entrepreneurship, the development of manufacturing processes, culturally compliant labour forces and Government policies supporting the development of small and large businesses. It is more likely that increased educational performance, which is far more recent than the economic miracles, are a product of growth, rather than the primary driver.
China is a fascinating example of a high growth economy, which can hardly claim to have been driven by education, as almost everything was closed down or destroyed in the cultural revolution and subsequent growth largely down to political reform, government planning and the encouragement of entrepreneurial activity.
The US is (28) but is the strongest economy in the world, fed by a thirst from entrepreneurialism and innovation. It always seems to pop up somewhere in the middle of these tables. But should they worry? I think not.
Another interesting case is Switzerland, in there at number 8.  It is a high performing economy, with major companies and good productivity, yet that grew at a time when Switzerland had one of the lowest Higher Education enrolment rates in the world. Until 1996 it had half the enrolment of the OECD average (16% to OECD average of 34%). It has risen since but is still way lower than many other European countries.
Let’s put aside the fact that Estonia (8) has just been identified as the worst performing economy in the Eurozone, in recession. Finland (7) is also going through a period of severe economic trouble, as its paper market collapsed (internet the cause) at the same time as it’s powerhouse company Nokia and the Russian economy, its largest trading partner, tanked.
Conversely, Greece has a huge rate of enrolment in Higher Education but is a bankrupt country where the banks and government coffers are all but empty and economic growth that most economists agree, will never be enough to pay the national debt. Italy, Portugal and Spain have similar issues. Youth and graduate unemployment have soared in line with increased enrolment in Higher Education.
Way down the bottom are Qatar and Saudi Arabia. These are strange beasts that buck the trend. The children of nationals in these countries receive a very expensive education yet problems remain with quality and motivation. In Qatar, a country I know well, the issue is not education but the malaise of excessive wealth that saps the aspiration of young people.
For nearly 25 years the literacy rate of Sub-Saharan African countries rose, in some cases spectacularly, yet income in the region fell by 0.3%. Some African countries, like Ethiopia, have been on a building spree, with universities sprouting like weeds. Yet this has led to economic strains, difficulties in maintaining quality of students and teachers, as well as a lack of clear evidence for increased prosperity. I’m in Addis Ababa next week arguing that what Africa needs, is not more Universities, but more vocational learning, embedded in the local economies.
Conclusion
Note that this is not an attack on education as a social good. Education is clearly not just about economic prosperity and many argue, rightly, that education has a much wider role than economic growth. What it looks at  is the claims that it also inexorably linked to economic growth.
Education wants its cake, wants to eat it and wants to claim that it made the cake as well. But there is a dangerous illusion here. I heard it described well by the President of Namibia in 2013, who called it the ‘spectre of hallucination’, the idea that more is always good and that more schooling, more participation in Higher Education, is always good. He thought this was as sure a sign as any that something has gone wrong. He’s right. This is the language of booms and bubbles. In some countries, the US and my own, the UK, the student debt problem may be approaching that of the housing bubble.
Bibliography
Pritchett L. (2001) Where has all the education gone?  The World Bank Economic Review, vol. 13 no. 3.

Ha-Jon Chang (2010) 23 Things they don’t tell you about capitalism. Penguin.

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Deficit model in education: a dangerous conceit?

If only we filled our minds up with even more knowledge, even more skills, GDP will dog-leg upwards, productivity will soar and all will be well. The conceit of education is that the answer to bad schooling is always more schooling. The glass is always half empty, even when the data suggests it is close to the brim. We always seem to have deep deficits and divides; digital divide, digital skills, maths, 21st C skills, qualifications, even happiness!
It is easy to see why the ‘deficit’ model of education has taken root  - it’s a means to an end – always a demand for more money and more research. The problem with the deficit model, is that it has an unexpected consequence. Your enemies pounce upon the same arguments to promote fiercer regulation and control on education, as you have already defined yourself as having created those deficits, you find yourself being branded as the blob, where standards have slipped and some stern discipline is needed to reduce the deficit which you admit is a massive problem. In the current climate, if you promote the deficit what you get is, not increased investment, but austerity. The exaggerated deficit model becomes the rod for education’s own back.
1. Digital divide
The most obvious exaggerated deficit is the digital divide, where, no matter how positive the data on mobile penetration, broadband take-up, massive use of Wikipedia, YouTube and social media is presented – there’s always someone in the audience whining on about the relatively small number of people who are ‘disadvantaged’. Yet when I speak to these people, the elderly, the disinterested and the downright skeptical, they don’t feel disadvantaged at all. They choose to live without this stuff and that’s fine by them and fine by me. Even those who want, but can’t afford, to get online invariably have a library, community centre or other way to access if they make the effort. I’m not saying that there is no digital divide, only that it is alluringly alliterative and not so much a divide as a vanishing problem.
2. Digital skills deficit
Again, the deficit model suggests that even the young lack the digital skills they really need. Digital literacy, the phantom that launched a thousand grant applications, is bandied about, as if it were a chronic disease. In fact, it is a phantom limb, a largely imaginary appendage that allows armies of adults to sell their services in reducing the so-called deficit. In truth, schools are ill-equipped to deal with digital skills, as the deficit, if it exists, is more prevalent among the teachers than the learners. Sure there’s some work to be done on digital safety but let’s not brand it as some huge deficit.
3. Maths deficits
Wherever we turn the maths Taliban are there, demanding more maths. The graduate baristas in Brighton don’t even have to work out the change as the till does it for them. Yet we need more algebra, quadratic equations and surds. You will be forced to take and retake GCSE Maths, even though most of it will be of absolutely no use to you in your later life. Maths teachers are the last people I’d turn to for help and advice in the real world. The illusory maths deficit is the leaning tower of PISAs awful legacy, branding education as a failure and wiping out huge swathes of useful knowledge and skills in favour of illusory benefits.
4. 21st C skills deficits
It’s become a weary PowerPoint cliché – 21st C skills. We need to teach collaboration, communication, creativity, critical skills. Yet, the learners already communicate, collaborate and create using tech, every five minutes or so. We come along and claim they have a skills deficit (21st C skills) and want to teach this stuff, usually in a classroom, where all of the tech is banned. I’m hugely amused at this conceit; that we adults, especially in education, think we always have the skills we want to teach. In my experience, it’s schools, colleges and Universities that need to be dragged into the 21st century, not their users.
5. Qualifications deficits
If only more people had more certificates, more degrees, more paper qualifications, we’d live in a utopian paradise of massive productivity and wealth. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. As more and more people get bits of paper, those bits of paper become commoditized and worth less. In fact, the massification of Higher Education may have led to even more inequality, acting as a sorting mechanism in the job market, rather than being related in any meaningful way to the economic growth.
6. Therapeutic deficits
The weird assumption that all learners and employees are mentally deficient and in need of therapeutic help from educators and HR types has taken hold, resulting in mindfulness, wellness and happiness jargon being bandied about like ant-depression tablets. Well meaning but naive types crow on about the assumed emotional deficit in us all (the glass is not half empty but completely empty) and demand that it be reduced through half-baked, new age fads.
Meanwhile - real deficits ignored
Every year there’s recognition of vocational skills’ deficits. Every year there’s educational and political intent to reduce those deficits. Yet, every year we demote, diminish and destroy whatever vocational skills delivery we have left in our system. This is a deficit of education’s making. Our political class largely comes from two Universities, the reports are written by abstract academics, with no real understanding of the mess they’ve created – endless bodies, changes, fiddling and procrastination. Apprenticeships is but one of a long list of messy failures. Massive amounts of financial resources, especially from public sources, are being spent on the wrong things, peripheral, exaggerated deficits, as opposed to real and valuable education.
Conclusion

Deficit models demand calls for reducing the deficit. But where the deficit is exaggerated it creates a climate of distrust, where politicians dismiss the deficit mongers or worse, turn their own arguments back on them, to ridicule and diminish them even further. What has worried me recently is education’s tendency to turn the deficit definition of education into something far worse – the pathological definition of education, where our emotional well-being and health is a target for schooling. When education is seen as a cure and cognitive deficiency a disease, we need to worry.

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Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Is the ‘closed’ mindset of the Open Educational Resources community its own worst enemy?

The promise was of a future where Open Educational Resources would sweep the globe and those pesky publishers would be wiped away by a tsunami of high quality, free stuff. It happened to a degree with Wikipedia, Khan, YouTube, MOOCs, Duolingo but almost in spite of the OER movement. There seemes to have been a bifurcation in OER between lots of publically funded projects that tended to atrophy even die and a successful crop of global successes. I’d argue that this was because of several strains of scepticism, institutional attitudes and a lack of awareness around marketing and sustainability in the educational community. The successes have been those that bucked these trends.
1. War on Wikipedia
Wikipedia is still being treated as a pariah resource in education. I still encounter fierce resistance and an almost visceral dislike of Wikipedia by professional educators, yet universal acclaim by learners and users. Rather than accept the fact that it is the most used and valuable knowledge base we have ever known, and that almost every learner on the planet finds it useful, educational professionals engage in a low level war against its use, usually on the back of uninformed, anecdotal statements on accuracy. This has been counterproductive but symptomatic of the problems around OER.
2. War on MOOCs
Rather than celebrate the existence MOOCs, many educatiorss immediately engaged in a guerrilla war against either the quality of the content or the ‘privatisation’ of education. This is a shame, based I suspect on knee-jerk envy, rather than analysis. The argument about drop-out is a clear category error. The argument about quality uninformed. But if the truth be told, MOOCs have had a profound effect on attitudes towards online learning. The relentless attacks have stymied their accreditation but the good news is that learners keep on using them, especially in vocational subjects.
3. War on Khan
You’d think it was Ghengis, not Salman, Khan, who gave us this fantastic set of resources in maths and other subjects. Breaking the back of the ‘talking head’ lecture, he stuck to simple narration and short pieces of exposition, putting most maths teachers and lecturers to shame. The backlash was predictable but the learner numbers, which are astonishingly high, just keep on growing. Why would we NOT want an organisation that delivers a sustainable "education for anyone, anywhere", in a huge number of languages, for free?
4. Educational cynicism
Rather than promote the use of OER, teachers and academics often (not all of course) take a distant, sniping, hostile, even histrionic stance against their use. I’ve encountered far too many CAVE dwellers (colleagues against virtually everything), yet the use of OER would widen (not narrow) the experience and pedagogic sophistication of most teachers. It is OER that allows more blended learning and flipped learning. In practice, it is rather sad that the success of OER has been in learners, in their hundreds of millions, by-passing teachers and using these resources without their knowledge.
5. Free at point of access
More focus on saving costs would not be ‘managerialism’ but an honest attempt to lower the cost of education, which we know is spiralling out of control. Education (not information) wants to be free. That’s a good mantra, as it undermines the existing, incredibly expensive model based on scarcity. Sure there’s been a rise in open policies, open journals and huge amounts of debate around OER but more focus on making education accessible through lower costs is what’s needed and what Wikipedia, Khan, MOOCs, Duolingo and others have provided.
6. Anti-corporate
Generally, despite the massive support by money from the private sector, such as the Hewlett and Gates Foundation, among many others, there is an anti-corporate tendency against anything that gets support from these sources. This is a shame, as I’d argue that the most successful tributaries of the OER movement have been fuelled by their active funding and participation, far more than most of the government funded, especially EU activity. This is not a private v public argument, it’s an argument about opening up the future of education.
7. Obsession with reusability
OER, in its early days, got bogged down in an obsession with reusable learning objects (this led to the largely hopeless SCORM standards) and a far too ‘teacher-oriented’ view of reusability. In some circles the obsession with the reuse of content by teachers, rather than straight use by learners, has led to an inward-looking attitude. Teaching is a means to an end and the most valuable OER resources are those used directly by learners. The sad fact is that reuse by educators forms a tiny, tiny part of overall use.
8. Poor marketing
OER initiatives too often lack the marketing skills to get their resources recognised and used. Poor, often confusing branding, no real marketing budget, expertise or marketing plan, results in repositories of unknown and unloved resources. This is especially true within institutions (not all) where lacklustre leadership, toothless policies and inertia thwart sensible sustainable growth.
9. Social media scepticism
Another symptom of this marketing malaise, in educational circles around OER, is the failure to see social media, through links to openly licenced resources, as a primary means of dissemination. Scepticism around social media is quite simply a failure to understand how dissemination (read marketing) actually works. One could argue further that social media is an OER resource in itself.
10. Unsustainable
The failure to see ‘sustainability’ in terms of business model and funding has also been an Achille’s Heel. Far too many projects were doomed to succeed in the sense of being funded but not on any financially sound model beyond pilots and repositories, and therefore remained insular. The successful examples, such as Wikipedia, Khan, YouTube, DuoLingo and MOOCs transcended the traditional ‘keep it in the University’ model, to provide hundreds of millions with valuable resources. They use a variety of models but sustainable models they remain.
Conclusion
Empirically, we’ve seen in Wikipedia, YouTube, Khan, Duolingo and MOOCs, truly wonderful examples of how pragmatic and sustainable openness can be achieved. Yet these are the open resources that get the most mud slung at them. Rather than sniping, educationalists should embrace the decentralisation, democritisation and disintermediation of learning through such resources. The examples I’ve quoted, that work, have grown because they started and exist outside of educational institutions. This is a shame, as we could have reshaped higher education to become much more open and accessible without this scepticism. It would seem that the future of OER needs to be in sustainable models beyond these institutions.
PS
I highly recommend 'The Battle for Open’ by Martin Weller, published under a Creative Commons licence. Its focus is largely on HE but it contains a great deal of useful and well argued positions – although not the positions I take in this blog – and he does, rather smugly but mistakenly, quote me as being some sort of silicon valley narrative apologist.

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Friday, May 01, 2015

James Baldwin: greatest ever learning theorist you’ve never heard of

You’ve probably never heard of James Mark Baldwin. Yet, he may be the greatest learning theorist that ever lived. A 19th century psychologist, he introduced what is called the ‘Baldwin Effect’ into evolutionary theory. The idea is that learned behavior, and not just environment and genes, influences the direction and rate of the evolution of psychological and physical traits. The mind is a learning machine and it is the various aspects of this ability to ‘learn’ that may have had driven evolution and our success as a species. The Baldwin effect places ‘learning’ on a larger theoretical canvas, lying at the heart of evolutionary theory. It is no longer just a cognitive ability, albeit a complex one with many different systems of memory involved, but a feature that defines the very success of our species. This is a profound and radical idea.
Note that this is not Lamarckism, as it does not claim that acquired characteristics are passed on genetically, only that the offspring of a adaptive trait (physical or psychological) may be genetically better at learning. This creates the opportunity, as it creates the conditions and successful population survival, for standard selection to take place.
Just as Darwin and Wallace struck upon the same idea at the same time, Baldwin had two Wallaces in Henry Fairfield Osborne and Conwy Lloyd Morgan. All three published the same ideas in 1895-96.
Growth of Baldwin effect
It has some impressive supporters include Aldous Huxley, Hinton, Nowlan, Dennett and Deacon. Evolutionary psychology has had a profound influence on the resurrection of the idea. Daniel Dennett is one theorist who posits the Baldwin idea that learned behavior, especially sustainable innovative behaviours, if it is captured in substantial genetic frequency, can act as what he calls a ‘sky crane’ in evolution.
Hinton and Nolan revived the idea in 1987 in ‘How Learning Can Guide Evolution” and a Richard Richards who published Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behaviour, in the same year. They generated enough interest for John Maynard Keynes. to support them in a article published in Nature in the same year.
But it is Daniel Dennett who has done most to popularize the idea in Consciousness Explained (1991) and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995). 
Weber and Depew have since published an excellent explanatory and supportive book Evolution and Learning: The Baldwin Effect Reconsidered (2007).
Deacon proposed that the Baldwin effect accounts for the rapid evolution of the mind and language. As Wittgenstein showed, a private language makes no sense as meaning is use. As soon as a small number start and continue to develop language skills it confers significant adaptive advantage and confers a real runaway advantage to the users. This ability to learn new skills may be the key to our species having moved beyond fixed, genetic determinism.
More than just language, adaption to new environments, responding to climatic and food pressures and other changes that require quicker adaption through selected learning, may have played a role in the rapid success of Homo Sapiens. Dennett proposes the actual creation of selective pressure on others by sustained learned behaviour. This is where it gets interesting for technology.
Technology
Significant advantages could have been through the relatively rapid learned ability to create technology, namely the production of tools. Technology scales the ability of its producers, owners and users to avoid predation, become better predators through hunting and fishing, protect its owners against climate (needles, cloth, clothes), use fire and preserve food. It is my contention that technology is the real runaway success, especially technology that allowed us to create social groups in which learning, in the sense of teaching and learning, could thrive.
Homo Technus
My favoured flavour of the Baldwin effect, the runaway success of learning to make things, namely the production of tools and technology. I see this as the cardinal, causal factor that the Baldwin effect bestowed on our species. Note that our species Homo Sapiens, was not the only species to thrive on the success of tools and technology, all other humanoid species did so, only not with the same levels of success. The history of tool making shadows the history of our species and gives us a window into the development of consciousness. The trail of stone tools is often as significant as the fossil bone evidence. Our advantage over our nearest rivals, the Neanderthals, seems to have been based on superior minds, tools and technology.
The Baldwin effect gives ‘learning’ cardinal status but learning technology, the product of learning how to teach and learn takes over. I’d go further and claim that learning, especially the development of cognitive systems such as episodic memory, gave the production and use of technology a privileged status. It is my contention that technology itself, through various network effects and machine learning has taken this to new levels. It may even transcend our very notion of what we currently see as intrinsically human.
Conclusion

In an interesting twist of fate Hinton and Nowlan claim to have demonstrated, through computer technology (simulations) that learning could shape evolution. The Baldwin effect, may, through its own efficacy have created the technological conditions for its own proof. The brain, through consciousness, may have created a fast developing structure that in turn accelerates learning and thus evolution.
Baldwin, J. M. (1973). Social and ethical interpretations in mental development. New York: Arno Press.
Dennett, D. C. (1995). Darwin's dangerous idea: Evolution and the meanings of life. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Dennett, D. C. (1991). Consciousness explained. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.
Weber, B. H., & Depew, D. J. (2003). Evolution and learning: The Baldwin effect reconsidered. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

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