What is education’s responsibility to society? An open, futures course

The short version: JOIN!

George Siemens and I are hosting a two week futures-style Open Course starting April 15th on the SSHRC challenge “Truth under Fire in a Post-Fact World,” and the question of how education should respond. You can sign up by joining this mailing list. 🙂

The longer version: JOIN! (online or in August)

After years of doing digital strategy off the side of my desk, it is now – finally – in my actual job title. One of the first thing I got to do was help design a summer event that would allow us to think about education in a different way. We chose to do a futures inspired institute. This open course gives us a chance to try out the model and learn a little bit more about what’s possible before the institute this summer.

Ever since I helped edit Bonnie Stewart’s Masters thesis Techknowledge: Literate Practice And The Digital World in 1998, I’ve been compelled by the intersection of technology and knowledge. In the twenty years since I’ve been involved in any number of discussions about what we should do with this new technology we have, whether we call it the Internet, the digital, or the database. The affordances of these technologies mean that information has gone from a scarce resource to an abundant resource. Our ability to cast information out to and connect with our fellow humans is both amazing and terrifying. Surely this means that people who are in the business of ‘learning’ are going to have to change their approach. At least slightly.

And we’re in the business of education – though we don’t all necessarily agree what that is. I hope, at the very least, that education is about preparing people with what they need to live in our world. We’ve not always been fair about how we go about that, and I’m not suggesting that we’ve been without other intents, but mostly, almost all of the time, our education systems are about getting people ready.

Ready for what? Well… that depends on who you are. If you are thinking we’re getting people ready for future jobs, I will happily send you to Benjamin Doxdator’s blog post again, and then we can all agree that’s a red herring. ANY discussion about what education is FOR leads us either to platitudes like “for learning” or, more contentiously, to a dark place where people start to dig out their own personal perspectives on what a ‘good society’ would look like and how we can normativize our students to that vision. We aren’t going to agree.

Some people take a different approach to thinking about how these new technologies are going to change our schools. In the newly released Horizon Report – Teaching and Learning Edition, we see extended conversations about how Virtual and Augmented reality are going to impact education. There is talk about analytics, instructional design and adaptive learning. I mean, there are five pages devoted to our broader societal issues, but the real meat of the document relates to the technology and how it is impacting us.

What I’m interested in getting at, however, is how the technology – how the abundance of information and connection that results for that technology – is impacting OUR SOCIETY and what we, as educators, should be doing about it. This, to me, is the core of the digital strategy that I want to do. And, with this in mind, I am proposing a trial run. An open course that takes a first stab at a model that allows us to attack this deeply complex and, from my perspective, critical conversation regarding our education system. What does our education system need to do, not in some nebulous overarching sense, not ‘with that VR headset’, but to address ‘this particular societal issue’.

In the futures conversations I’ve facilitated (or participated in) the major obstacle is getting the trends part of the futures discussion done. In some cases you might not have the right people in the room, and trends you get might not be directed at your issue. You might have too many of the right people in the room, and all the time is spent debating how many angels can dance on the head of a VR headset. With this in mind, I’ve decided to try to build on someone else’s trends, and allow us to get right to the business of working with futures.

The work that I’m proposing to use belongs to Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. It is, necessarily, Canadian Flavoured. The work was done with Canada in mind and does not, sadly, have significant examples from the Global South…or the US, or Asia. I recognize this limitation. However, the work is excellent as it is, and forms a starting point that can hopefully be filled in by participants from other contexts.

The open course

Ten years ago I did a MOOC with George Siemens called ‘Ed Futures’. When I was thinking of hosting another short, open course, doing another event with George seemed like a nice bookend.

(Don’t tell George, but I’ve always considered him one of the smartest people in the field, and, as may be useful for the purposes of this course, we *rarely* agree regarding the field of education…so it’ll likely be lively.)

I used the word ‘host’ earlier deliberately. This course will not be taught by George or I. We are looking to host a conversation, and test out a model for futures discussions that will, hopefully, be an interesting way of looking at how we do strategy for education. This model was originally designed for the institute the Office of Open Learning is looking to host in the summer, but with the COVID19 situation, any group activity planned for the summer is uncertain. I think this online attempt, moreover, will give us a chance at broader input from more disparate sources. That can’t help but give us a better strategic view by the time it’s all over.

There are still many details about how we hope this will work that are up in the air at this point. Broadly speaking, we’ll work from the SSHRC societal challenge in a futures-ish kinda way. I have some ideas about how this can be done in a distributed way, but I’ll leave that for the next blog post. Suffice it to say that participants will be encouraged to follow a futures model in order to help inform us all regarding the different ways that we, as educators, can adapt our policies, approaches and practices for a world where facts are increasingly difficult to pin down.

We need to strategize for an education system that can solve – or at least address – our societal problems. Join us in April: let’s see if we can start a conversation that can help do that.