Archive for the ‘education’ category

EdTech: something so important nobody is talking about it. Yet.

April 9, 2018

A couple of years ago I suggested in an interview that university education had, in its basic methodology, hardly changed since the Middle Ages. I was of course being deliberately provocative and was exaggerating my argument, but nevertheless I did believe that I was making a valid point. Over the next few days I was met with howls of indignation, some of them in public and in print, from colleagues in other institutions who said my assertions were ludicrous; and who listed the zillions of things that had changed in universities since Thomas Aquinas had paced the lecture rooms of the University of Paris in 1250. Certainly he wasn’t holding an iPad as he paced, and he was never having to address the attentions of the Quality Assurance Agency. He might even have been quite unable to explain the nature and purpose of a MOOC. You get the idea.

None of that of course was my point, and me being me, I probably expressed myself badly. I certainly wasn’t out to insult anyone, as I have nothing but respect for those who labour in the vineyards of academia, and who do not get the recognition they deserve. What I was trying to convey was that we were using the same pedagogical understanding of our educational process as in the Middle Ages, and that while we may have adopted various new methods of communication and technology, these did not change our understanding of what was involved in teaching and learning. I don’t believe that even the adoption of ‘learning outcomes’ changes the game fundamentally.

So what we have, mostly, is a new technological portfolio sitting on top of traditional pedagogy. But because the technology is now so ground-breakingly different, it is becoming more and more important to have a proper insight into how disruptive this can be. The thinking that has emerged so far, usually contained under the heading of EdTech (which however covers education at all levels, not just higher education), has tended to be driven more by industry than by academia. More interestingly, it has become an increasingly fertile terrain for entrepreneurs and start-ups. Now interest by governments is emerging, and with it the potential for some funding; though it is not at all clear yet where that funding will actually go.

It has been a recurrent theme of this blog that we need much deeper thinking on pedagogy. This is as true in EdTech as anywhere else; but it should be a call to universities to take that on and accept the potential benefits of technology that may disrupt our traditional understanding of education; and to own the policy ideas that underpin it.


The philosopher’s stone

October 9, 2017

Outside of the world of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, little attention is probably paid these days to the philosopher’s stone, or indeed the study of alchemy from which it derived. Even if we don’t now want to focus on the ostensible chemical transformation suggested by the concept (of base metals into gold or silver), alchemy provided an interesting framework for the study of life, enlightenment and perfection. Studies of alchemy provided early insights into both science and philosophy, as well as what we might now regard as more doubtful journeys into the esoteric and the occult.

What is interesting about all this is that in earlier periods of history scholars often had a much greater desire to understand more of the totality of knowledge than many would aspire to today, or indeed would be encouraged to pursue. The philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz for example, who also wrote learned works on physics, political science, law and theology in the 17th and 18th centuries, did not accept the constraints of single-subject expertise. He even developed some of the foundations of modern computing.

The challenges of interdisciplinarity have been the subject of attention in this blog before. But perhaps a starting point for us now might be to give more space to philosophical reflection in all areas of learning, to create a sense of understanding of how different areas of knowledge connect and how they can either underpin or endanger our sense of values. It is perhaps time to ensure that all people, at key stages of their educational formation, are exposed to the major strands of philosophy. In this way education can be what it needs to be, the alchemy that turns knowledge into wisdom.

The technology problem

August 28, 2017

As has been noted previously in this blog, there are differing opinions on the extent to which universities should develop education strategies to provide skills needed in the economy. Some of those who might be sceptical about such strategies argue that universities should not be vocational training institutions; some point out that we don’t really know what skills will be needed a few years from now, so that universities should not try to meet every passing request for specific skills training. Then again others will point out that shortages of people with particular degree qualifications will influence key corporate investment decisions; and this might suggest that universities should recognise the need for graduates in specific disciplines.

Ever since the bubble burst some 16 years ago, schools and parents have become cautious about advising your people to take degrees in subjects such as computing and software engineering. Over the past 10 years or so this has led to a growing number of vacancies in the IT industry in the United Kingdom and Ireland, seen as a key industry with the ability to secure economic growth. So it is being described as a matter of concern that the number of students applying to take relevant subjects continues to be lower than desired. This has recently been again reported as a serious problem in Ireland, and in England the same problem is thought to be growing due to the inadequate number of GCSE pupils taking computing classes in schools.

It is of course right that universities must play a longer game and that they cannot just redirect their resources to meet changing demands of industry or government. General and transferable soft skills will always remain important. But ever since universities initiated what are essentially vocational disciplines – such as engineering, accounting, law, and so forth – they cannot easily suggest that equipping students with profession-specific skills is not part of their mission. But then again, universities cannot meet these demands if pupils leave schools not well prepared for courses that address society’s specific needs. Solving this problem will need intervention much earlier in the education system.

Foolish, in anyone’s language

August 1, 2017

The benefit and the curse of living in an English-speaking country is that so many people around the world speak some English – we have come to expect that of them. And so it doesn’t seem so surprising that, in this case in Scotland, over ten years there has been a drop of 59 per cent in the number of school pupils taking foreign languages, with only Spanish seeing an increase. The same trend has been observed for a while in England, and all this has had a predictable impact on universities.

There are countless reasons why this is not good news. We may be able to order our pizzas in Tuscany without learning Italian and order our Volkswagens in English, but success in global interactions is critically enhanced by understanding other peoples’ cultures, particularly including their languages. A Chinese colleague once told me that winning in business dealings with British and American businesspeople is made so much easier by their lack of linguistic and cultural awareness.

This trend can be stopped, but such action has to be led visibly and audibly by government and the business community. Right now that is not happening. It needs to happen.

The literacy imperative

May 15, 2017

The history of social progress, of public health, of prosperity has all been closely connected with the advance of literacy. Societies with high literacy rates are capable of social and technological progress that evades those with low literacy. The fact, for example, that the Central African Republic has a literacy rate of 37 per cent, while in Germany it is 100 per cent, gives you a very close idea of the difference in wellbeing between the two countries.

Literacy itself has become more complex. It has always been discussed alongside numeracy (which in turn strongly affects scientific capacity), but increasingly literacy is seen to include digital literacy in the information technology age. But even ‘traditional’ literacy is not always straightforward: employers in western developed countries often complain that people looking for employment are inarticulate and unskilled in basic writing tasks. In explaining this state of affairs it is sometimes suggested that ‘progressive’ learning methods have undermined literacy. For the generation entering school in the 1970s and 1980s, children were often given books in which, without basic spelling and phonetic instruction, they were encouraged to associate written words with pictures and related context (a programme known as ‘real books’). But this, it is argued, makes literacy depend on remembering how words ‘look’ rather than the ability to make connections between combinations of letters and sounds. It has been suggested by some that this pedagogical fashion did at least instil in young people a respect for and love of books; though whether it supported basic literacy is more questionable.

I do not myself belong to the tribe of nostalgia pedlars who believe there was a golden age (probably in the 1950s) when everyone could read and write perfectly. It was never perfect. Nevertheless, we do well to keep a real focus on literacy, because so much else depends on it. The attainment gap between rich and poor is directly connected with literacy.

Those who think that graduates today lack literacy often blame the universities. There are certain remedial initiatives that universities can undertake to help students who enter higher education with literacy problems, but overall the issue needs to be addressed at a much earlier age if such methods are to be effective. In Scotland the government is supporting some pilot programmes in primary schools to improve vocabulary – and that is where the initiatives need to be undertaken.

Curiosity and education

April 17, 2017

Professor Chris Morash, who is Vice-Provost of Trinity College Dublin, made an interesting observation when interviewed for a recent article in the Irish Times: that the Irish secondary school examination system ‘is dampening students’ innate curiosity and leading to a culture of dependency among students on class notes and exam expectations.’ The question this raises is a profound one for educators: are we making students adopt a gaming approach (guessing what those examining them will want them to say), or are we stimulating their minds?

There has been lots of valuable research into curiosity. We know for example that the brain reacts in a particular way to heightened curiosity, so that information is processed more effectively and retained better. Curiosity is also a vital tool in discovery, leading for example to better diagnosis in medicine.

Yet we find all too often that education systems set out to kill curiosity and focus the student instead on securing a functionally efficient outcome to examinations.

I was given an illustration of this a few years ago when I was asked to join an event for secondary school students in Dublin. At that time the world’s airline travel had been thrown into chaos by the 2010 eruptions of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland. Some of the young people I was talking with told me they had asked to discuss this at school and were told by their teacher that it would be a waste of time because the eruptions had occurred too late to be included in that year’s Leaving Certificate [final school] exams. I don’t believe that I have ever heard a better reason for a total reform of the system.

It is time to remind ourselves that an education that shuts out curiosity is not an education at all.

History man?

November 15, 2016

There is no doubt that the election of Donald Trump in the United States has produced much acrimonious debate and lots of anxiety in the education community, in America and elsewhere. There are clearly many questions that this turn of events should prompt us to address about social, political and educational values, at least over time; but one incident in the past couple of days invites comment now. A history teacher in a Californian high school has been placed on leave for comparing Donald Trump with Adolf Hitler. According to reports, Frank Navarro argued that ‘Hitler’s persecution of Jews and rise to power has “remarkable parallels” to Trump’s comments on Latinos, Blacks and Muslims in his own bid for power.’

I won’t offer a view on the merits of Mr Navarro’s analysis; indeed some might suggest that he has violated ‘Godwin’s Law‘, under which anyone who in an argument invokes an analogy with Hitler loses that argument. It is certainly doubtful whether Mr Trump, whatever one might say about him (and lots is being said) is contemplating genocide or the invasion of Canada.

But that is not the question here. Rather, the question is how far an educator should be allowed to go in developing an argument in front of students, even where that argument might not be thought by others to carry merit, or even where it might be thought to state a partisan political position. To assess that further, one could ask whether Mr Navarro would have been suspended if, instead of comparing Donald Trump with Hitler, he had claimed interesting parallels with Winston Churchill. The latter analogy would also have been partisan, though this time in the other direction. And if we transferred the scene from an American High School classroom to a university, would the same or different considerations apply?

The proper test is whether an argument presented in a classroom is framed as an invitation to students to question assumptions and received wisdoms, or whether it amounts to indoctrination. I cannot tell, from the little evidence I have, whether Frank Navarro crossed a line he shouldn’t have; but I am instinctively uneasy about this form of sanction, however questionable his thesis may have been. As his students see him punished for saying what he did, they may well draw the wrong conclusions about the nature of a mature free society.