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.

The future of education – A course in futures thinking

Funny how these opportunities can present themselves sometimes. I had cleared my year to focus on some writing and, in the span of 3 days, had taken on the teaching of three courses (well… i’m teaching one of them twice). The course I’m going to be teaching twice, once f2f in Singapore next month and as an open course with George Siemens starting in mid-April, is about the future of education. It’s a strange path for me, in a sense, as I’ve always been a little wary of true prognosticating, and normally stick to my silly top ten list every year. The course description got me thinking though… and made me realize that I’ve been doing this all along, I just hadn’t called it by this name.

What is the next wave of technological change? What can educators do to prepare and anticipate trends? Using a method called “future thinking,” this course will look at a variety of trends and provide a series of potential scenarios and future directions. Participants will be actively involved in tracking critical trends, exploring their educational impact, and plan for ways to prepare for important changes. (written by George Siemens as part of emergent tech certificate at umanitoba)

I’ve been mulling over an approach for a while now, but have decided that its time to start firming things up for a course that starts its pre-amble in two weeks. I struggled with it, as it seemed to be a bit presumptuous to claim to be able to prepare people for the future. I started doing some reading… and started grounding the ideas into something a bit more practical… and now have an outline that I’d like some feedback on if you’ve a mind.

(This sketch is for the 5 day intensive course – heavily simplified for discussion purposes… there’s no way the days will be this discrete)
The hope for this course is to bring some structure to strategic thinking around the next 10-15 years of higher education when seen through the lens of the impact of technology. It is not intended as a ‘prediction’ of the future, but rather as sharpening the skills for thinking about the future, finding ways to be prepared for possible futures, and making a best effort to avoid the pitfalls of biased thinking. We’ll take a look at a specific context (in this case the participants in Singapore) and get a sense of existing challenges, thoughts, hopes etc… We’ll move on to talking about decision making and trends. And then finish out the course by some exploratory and then normative forecasting.

Day 1 – Context building
Maybe the key to most learning, but certain essential to talking about the future is to establish a clear sense of the context in which we are discussing things. The difference between looking out over 5 years or 20 years, for instance, could change the focus entirely from a close attention to recent trends to casual blue sky thinking about future tech. I’m also very much hoping to get the participants considering where they work, how their institution fits into the marketplace, where there teaching is, where they hope it will go, what their students are like… Essentially create a picture of who and where they are. For this course, we’ll be doing this part online, starting a week or two before I head over. That’ll give us a chance to get to know each other, as well as allow me to do some last minute research to fill in specific context gaps in the materials we’ll be covering

I also hope that this will be a day of research as well. I’d like to see the participants pulling together info/data regarding their context. Everything from the number of students they may have, what their class size has looked like, access to technologies… whatever they consider important in terms of impact on their context. A good time, perhaps, to also list people’s resources (communities, experience, training opportunities) in order to get a better sense of what options may be available. We’re creating food to feast on over the upcoming days.

Day 2 – Decision Making
This is a day for reflecting on the process of decision making. Some of this will be premised on Gary Klein’s work… as well as things gathered from other locals. One of the frustrations for me in teaching a course that is this intensive, is that I’m wary of trying to get the students to find too much of the content. My preference is the ‘community as curriculum’ route, but given the timeframe, it’ll be tough for them to get the research in. Maybe a combination of both, it’ll depend on the make up of the students.

We’ll be talking about stories of decisions that people make, looking at article like http://news.noahraford.com/?p=175 this one by Noah Raford. He talks about a variety of ways in which bias affect group decision making which will be familiar to people who have… uh… been in groups. The ‘tyranny of the past’ ‘expectation bias’ ‘perils of too narrow thinking’ etc… all things that are useful to keep in mind when thinking about the impact of tech in education. Hopefully I’ll be able to draw examples of these out of the students as well, and get a discussion going on how people make these kinds of decisions in the education space.

I should also note that we’ll be covering technologies for communicating as a matter of course. These students are nearing the end of their work in the Emerging Technologies certificate at the university of manitoba, so they will already be familiar with a number of the technologies and have used them in practical ways before we begin.

Day 3 – Trends
We’re all familiar with the major trend publications that get released every year in our field (like, say, the horizon report). There are number of other trend watching websites, companies, and consultants who are willing to go on record on what they think we will be getting to in the future. The advantage of futures thinking and scenario planning for the kind of forcasting that we’re doing is that we don’t need to ‘agree’ or ‘decide’ to choose any of the trends that we find. We need the trends as more fuel for the scenario planning, to create relevant possibilities and think about how one would adapt to those.

If we, for instance, accept that the trend towards mobility in education is inevitable, there are a number of possibilities that can result from it. (decentralization of education, or the instructor, more collaboration) These might find their way into two or three different scenarios, but as we break down the trends into manageable pieces we might find that in each case having educators use a mobile device (maybe with a document management system supported by the university to support courses) gives the educators the literacies they need to adapt to any possible future examined as part of the process. Maybe not a very strong example, but i’m also not trying to seed the exploration process either. The point is that the trend need not be a simple “mobile good, must buy iphones” but rather a search for solutions to multiple possibilities.

Day 4 – exploratory scenarios
Given our context, decision making and trends we are ready to dive into the scenarios in earnest. The first of the two ‘kinds’ of scenarios will be the exploratory ones. These take a look at the possible futures for our context, not including what we’d like them to be, but rather what they might be. I don’t whole heartedly agree with this list, but it is a good example of the kind of thing that one might end up with. http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/4/3/38988449.pdf A series of six possible futures for education (in this case, not specifically mapped to tech) spanning the gamut from ‘business as usual’ to ‘system meltdown’. Imagine each of six teams developing a scenario and then playing it out for the rest of the members of the class. The respondents would then draw on their own research, scenarios (and work from first three days) to refine the scenario, critique possible conclusions and explore ways to mitigate problems and encourage advantages.

Day 5 – normative scenarios
This is the opposite side of the coin. In this case you imagine the future you would like to see and talk about ways to reach it. What future of education would you want to live in… how would the technology get you there. What would get in the way. etc…

I’ve left a bunch out… but this is the basic sketch of what i’m going to do (i think) I’m still mulling over the decision about whether to use the jargon terms or not for instance. Anyway. your feedback muchly appreciated.

note: i should add that much of the better content in this post came from george siemens’ suggestions in our discussion around this topic, the original course description is his.

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