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Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Can learning policies threaten a nation ? The Chinese think so - maybe

I write a regular column on learning technology for the e-learning publication with the world's largest readership. Not Times Higher Ed, not Education Chronicle... no, it's Distance Learning in China.

My most recent feature was about Obama's education proposals, "A Better Deal for the Middle Class". The English Text is in a separate blog entry.

The Chinese magazine writes an English summary for the contents page. In September, it looked like this:

Through a mixture of translation errors and perhaps wishful thinking, the last sentence completely misrepresented my argument. According to this version, I argued that the move of learning technologies to the core of educational systems, may pose a risk for the US Government.

The publishers have apologised, explained the error as a translation mistake, and agreed to clarify things in next month's edition. Perhaps there was also some fuzzy or wishful thinking here: in working with Chinese e-learning colleagues over the years, I have noticed they are quick to investigate risk, threat, or bad practice in other nations. For the record: what I did argue, was that the use of learning platform data, to set college funding levels, might threaten online learning's advantages of transparency and uncorruptibility.

But this funny little error had me thinking. Maybe there is a grain of truth in it. Every educational development eventually puts a sovereign government in the firing line. Britain is moving private enterprise to the core of education delivery - and unquestionably this presents a risk (or an opportunity, depending on your viewpoint). China, in giving e-learning a central role in its Development plans, took a risk, has reaped tangible national benefits. So the same ought to hold true when President Obama enthrones technology at the heart of teaching and learning. At the level of a broad generalisation, it can't be dismissed that Government faces risks from this. But the abstract possibility needs to be tested out on specifics.

How actually might education technology put US Government at risk - when it appears to deliver benefits around affordability, cost and participation ?

I'm going to think about this in subsequent blogs, but one starting point is a set of manifesto points put up by Diana Laurillard, of Institute of Education/London Knowledge Lab. Thanks to Stephen Brown of De Montfort University for pulling these out as a stimulus to a session on MOOCs at this week's upcoming meeting on Research and Innovation in Distance Learning and e-Learning organised by Centre for Distance Education at University of London.

Here are Diana's manifesto points, which were originally posted to ALT members on discussion forums. I think they are good point to start investigating how a technology in education could betray, or jeopardise, national interests.

1. Formal education is not a mass delivery consumer industry but a client industry – we do not deliver knowledge to students, we try to nurture each individual's intellectual knowledge and skills to their highest potential level.

2. Formal education is not an emergent property of group discussion but a contract with a student to take them to a criterion or normative level of capability, which it is objectively agreed and therefore not up to them to define.

3. A university degree requires personal guidance, feedback and accreditation in terms of this agreed standard – and this is labour intensive and therefore expensive.

4. Higher education for some proportion of the population should not be free because it would have to be funded out of taxation, and yet it confers a financial advantage on the beneficiary, which lower-paid unqualified taxpayers should not be required to fund (so a graduate tax would be a better way to fund HE).

5. Experimentation with online pedagogies of the kind found in MOOCs has been available to us for over a decade. We should not have needed the MOOC phenomenon to start experimenting with technology-based pedagogies for the benefit of our existing students.

6. MOOC pedagogies fit the 'professional development' pedagogic format of 'presentation + peer discussion', with no expectation of feedback, assessment or accreditation, as in the cMOOC, with an optional certificate of 'attendance'.

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