August 15, 2018

Book review: Open and Distance Non-formal Education in Developing Countries

A mobile school for Delhi street children run by Butterflies. Click to see video

Latchem, C. (2018) Open and Distance Non-formal Education in Developing Countries Springer: Singapore

The author

I was about to review this book when I was informed of the death of Colin Latchem, its author.

Colin was an Australian consultant, researcher and writer in the field of open and distance learning.  In the 1970s, he was a pioneer in the UK in the development of educational television and learning resources for universities.

He emigrated to Australia in 1982 to become head of the Teaching Learning Group at Curtin University, Perth, a centre responsible for academic staff development, educational technology and open and distance learning. Over the years he became the ‘go-to’ person about open and distance education in South East Asia. He received the Charles A Wedemeyer award in 2002 for best book of the year on open and distance education. He was also co-editor of the SpringerBriefs series on Open and Distance Education. He was formerly the Asia-Pacific Corresponding Editor of The British Journal of Educational Technology.

Colin was a good friend and colleague whom I have known for over 40 years. I cannot think of a more appropriate way to celebrate a true scholar and gentleman than to review his final work.

Definition of open and distance non-formal education (ODL NFE)

Latchem does not provide a precise definition of non-formal education, but distinguishes non-formal learning from informal learning (the spontaneous, incidental acquisition of knowledge) and formal learning provided by schools, colleges and universities. Non-formal learning sits somewhere in between, concerned with providing lifelong learning in support of social equality, employment and development for those denied formal education. It may be provided through NGOs, international or government agencies, employers or social organisations such as community groups.

In open and distance education most of the teaching is conducted by some provider removed in time and space from the learner, using content and approaches that are openly accessible, enabling learners to learn individually or collaboratively at the time and place of their choosing.

The importance of open and distance education for non-formal education

 Some of the figures Latchem provides about the need for non-formal education are staggering: 

  • 263 million children and youth did not have access to schools in 2014
  • 130 million girls are denied the right to formal education, and are four times more likely to be denied education than boys of the same socio-economic group
  • 758 million adults aged 15 years and older remain illiterate, of which two-thirds are women 
  • there are 60 million refugees or displaced persons without access to formal education
  • it would take an extra US$40 billion to provide 12 years of education for all in the developing world, but international aid today is 4% lower than it was in 2010.

Other groups outside the formal education system in developing countries include people with disabilities and people imprisoned. It is of course still the poorest socio-economic groups who have the least access to formal education in developing countries, despite often heroic efforts by national governments.

Latchem argues that conventional face-to-face methods can never meet the scale and extent of the knowledge and skills building and social and behavioural change needed to meet the United Nations’ Millenium Development Goals. Open and distance education non-formal education (ODL NFE) is the only way to meet these needs until formal educational provision becomes globally available to all, and even then ODL NFE will still be needed on a large scale.

However, Latchem claims that there has been little prior research into the effectiveness of ODL NFE in developing countries. What little prior research that has been done indicates that previous attempts to use open and distance learning for non-formal education in developing countries were piecemeal and ineffective, mainly consisting of short-term pilots lacking sustainable funding.  

Latchem concluded that a review of current practice and progress in this field was long overdue and hence the central concern of the book is about identifying ways in which open and flexible forms of lifelong learning have increased social equality, employment and development for those denied formal education.

The structure of the book

There are four parts to the book:

  1. Background to the study, which examines the Global Development Agenda, and introduces the reader to prior research, and the main elements of ODL NFE.
  2. A fairly brief description of the main technologies and media currently in use in ODL NFE, including radio, television, mobile learning, OERs and MOOCs, telecentres, and traditional and performing arts.
  3. A more extensive review of areas in which ODL NFE has been mostly successfully used. These include:
    • out-of-school children and youth
    • adult literacy, ESL
    • gender equity
    • disabled, refugees, prisoners
    • health care, safe water, sanitation and hygiene
    • agriculture and agribusiness
    • small and medium-sized enterprises
    • education for sustainable development
  4. A conclusion, including actions needed

My main takeaways

Firstly, the size of the challenge in providing education for all. I agree with Latchem that although the long-term goal should be formal education for all, in the short-term this will be impossible for many years in many developing countries, and that non-formal education will continue to be critically important in helping to fill the gap, and that open and distance learning is a valuable, cost-effective means to provide this. (It is also cost-effective means to provide formal education, as well, but that is another book).

Second, though, I was blown away by the many cases Latchem provides of successful ODL NFE projects. The book is filled with over 180 cases and urls to video links which demonstrate the applications. I was particularly impressed by the extent and value of telecentres, and the criteria needed for them to succeed. There are lessons here for developed as well as developing countries.

Third, while cost and access remain a major barrier, I was impressed by the extent to which the Internet and ICTs (particularly mobile learning) are being successfully used in many developing countries. I was also impressed with the use of more traditional media, such as puppets, theatre, song and dance, highlighting the importance of cultural adaptation to local needs. Again I believe there are lessons here for developed as well as developing countries.

Nevertheless, while these success stories are encouraging, there are often systemic difficulties that hinder the implementation of ODL NFE. Latchem identifies the following:

  • over-dependence on international aid agencies/NGOs
  • lack of sustainability due to overuse of short-term, small scale pilots and insufficient funding
  • lack of learning pathways from informal to non-formal to formal education
  • the need for a systematic approach/a national strategy for non-formal education
  • lack of reliable broadband connection in rural areas where NFE is most needed
  • lack of content in local languages
  • lack of research and evaluation of projects in terms of outcomes.

Latchem then ends with a set of nine action steps that are needed to advance the ODL NFE agenda.

In summary

This book benefits enormously from being written by a single author, rather than a series of articles by different writers. This provides the book with a coherent and consistent message.

I cannot say how thrilled I was to see so many wonderful projects attempting under great difficulty to make the world a better place. Most of these were firmly community-based, and locally designed and maintained, if often with some international assistance. It is one of the most optimistic books I have read for a long while.

It also highlights the naïvity and wrong-headedness of many Western approaches to the use of technology in developing countries, such as believing the importation of American MOOCs (or whatever is the latest technology) is a sustainable solution to education for all. There is a role for MOOCs, but are best developed locally in local languages, for instance, and more importantly, embedded in a local organisation and infrastructure that makes the material likely to be used effectively.

Some of the early content will be familiar to most readers of this blog, but the real target for this book are policy-makers in developing countries trying to tackle the challenge of education for all. This book provides powerful evidence of the role that open and distance education non-formal education can play in making education for all a reality. This is a fitting end to a wonderful career – thank you, Colin.

Free online courses on English for Syrian refugees

FutureLearn’s Basic English 1: Elementary. Click on image to access course.

FutureLearn (2018) New free online courses launched to help Syrian refugees continue their education FE News.co.uk, June 8

Kings College, the University of London, has partnered with FutureLearn, the U.K. Open University’s MOOC platform, to deliver a series of twelve new free online courses to assist refugees affected by conflict in the Middle East. The first two courses, Basic English 1: Elementary, and Basic English 2: Pre-Intermediate, start on June 18.

The courses are a result of an interesting project called PADILEA, which stands for The Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access, whose partners are King’s College, LondonKiron Open Higher Education (Germany), FutureLearn in the UK, Al al-Bayt University in Jordan and the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. The PADILEA project will provide blended academic programmes, including Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), targeted online learning, and classroom-based learning to displaced students who are in refugee camps and other communities.

While the course content is specifically designed for people affected by the Syrian crisis, they are open to all people in the region and beyond for free. Learners can join the courses from any device, computer or smartphone with an internet connection. The courses will also have Arabic translations.

Comment

This is an example of the huge potential of MOOCs to improve accessibility to education and meet some very pressing needs. The PADILEA MOOCs are more focused and targeted than many other MOOCs but still have a large potential audience and have a very important goal. Professor Bronwyn Parry at King’s College perfectly captured the significance of this project:

In the scale of the enormity of the ongoing conflict in the region, English courses may seem a relatively small affair but access to education is absolutely vital and offers opportunity and hope for an entire generation whose lives have been devastated by war and displacement.

I have already reported on Kiron University’s efforts to help refugees with online learning. In some ways, online learning for refugees is like a band-aid for someone who is bleeding to death. It can only help reduce some of the effects caused by more fundamental political and economic issues that still need to be urgently addressed, but nevertheless band-aids are still useful when you are bleeding.

I hope though that eventually a more long-term and stable solution will be found for the education of the millions still stuck in refugee camps hoping to transition to a more normal existence – or better still, remove the need for refugee camps in the first place. 

The current madness in online learning: case no. 2

Keith Devlin, Stanford University, who offers a MOOC on mathematical thinking. Is there a bias of white male presenters in MOOCs?

Baker, R. et al. (2018) Bias in Online Classes: Evidence from a Field Experiment, Stanford CA: Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis, CEPA Working Paper  No. 18-03

Yesterday I ranted at the high costs in the UK of online programs aimed at part-time, working people. Today, I want to look at a recent study from researchers at Stanford University reporting racial bias in online discussion forums.

First let’s report the facts: what did the researchers say? (Please read the report for yourself if you are uncomfortable with my comments about their conclusions).

Main finding

They report:

this study provides what we believe is the first evidence of the possible presence of racial and gender biases among students and instructors in online courses. 

First, it provides novel and fundamentally important insights into a rapidly proliferating type of learning environment. In 2013, 25 percent of all postsecondary students took some or all of their courses online. This fact has equity implications given that students enrolling in less selective colleges make up a larger fraction of the online student body online. Even in K-12 education, more than 300,000 students exclusively attend online schools, with as many as 5 million students having taken at least one online course….

Because our study relies on fictive student identities, it cleanly isolates behavioral effects due to instructors and unequivocally rules out mechanisms related to student reactions to a particular instructor.

…a comment from a White male is a statistically significant 5.8 percentage points more likely to receive a response from an instructor than non-White male students. The magnitude of this effect is striking. Given the instructor reply rate of 6.2 percent for non-White male posters, the White male effect represents an 94 percent increase in the likelihood of instructor response.

This is a pretty damning criticism of online learning. How did they come to this conclusion?

Methodology

We tested for the presence of racial and gender biases in these settings by creating fictional student identities with racial- and gender-connotative names, having these fictional students place randomly assigned comments in the discussion forums, and observing the engagement of other students and instructors with these comments.

We situated our study within 124 Massive Open Online Courses…..Critically, we also believe there is credible external validity to conducting this study within MOOCs because their basic design features (e.g., asynchronous engagement, recorded lectures, discussion forums) and their postsecondary content are widely used in other online courses.

Using fictive student identities, we placed eight discussion-forum comments in each of the 124 MOOCs. Within each course, eight student accounts were used to place one comment each. The eight student accounts each had a name that was connotative of a specific race and gender (i.e., White, Black, Indian, Chinese, each by gender); each race-gender combination was used once per class…..By observing the responses to our comments by instructors and by students in the course, we can identify any difference in the number of responses received by our student accounts that were assigned different race and gender identities.

Fifty eight percent of the courses in our sample were taught by either one White male instructor or a teaching team of exclusively White men….White students were 5.9 percentage points more likely than non-White students to respond to one of our comments when that comment was assigned a White name….We find that White women were over 10 percentage points more likely to respond to a post with a White female name than non-White women.

My comments

This study has received a lot of attention, being reported in many different outlets. The main reporting suggests that discussions in online learning are strongly biased, with more attention being paid to white male students by instructors, and white female students more likely to correspond with or respond to other white females.

I don’t dispute these findings, as far as they apply to the 124 MOOCs that the researchers studied.

Where the madness comes in is then generalising this to all online courses. This is like finding that members of drug gangs in Mexico are likely to kill each other so the probability of death by gunfire is the same for all Mexicans.

MOOCs are one specific type of online learning, offered mainly by elitist institutions with predominantly white male faculty delivering the MOOCs.

Furthermore, the instructor:student ratio in MOOCs is far higher than in credit-based online learning, which still remains the main form of online learning, despite the nonsense spouted by Stanford, MIT and Harvard about MOOCs. In an edX or Coursera MOOC, with very many students, it is impossible for an instructor to respond to every student. Some form of selection has to take place.

In most credit-based online courses, discussion forums are much more tightly managed by instructors. Many using best practices try to ensure that all students in their online discussion forum are as fully engaged as possible in the discussions. This is just not possible for an instructor to ensure in very large MOOC discussions forums. Also to imply that their findings will also apply to k-12 online courses is even more ridiculous. Their statement that the basic design features of MOOCs are widely used in other online courses is just not correct.

So yes, because of the very nature of most MOOCs, I am not surprised to find racial and gender bias in the discussions forums. I am sure that if one looked closely enough, one would probably find some instructors in credit-based online courses show either conscious or unconscious bias, but I would need to see evidence drawn from this context, not from a completely different context such as MOOCs.

Once again, we see faculty from Stanford assuming that MOOCs are the standard for online learning, when all along they have been a mutant, and so it is not surprising to find mutant behaviour in them.

Online learning for beginners: 3. ‘Aren’t MOOCs online learning?’

NZ MOOCs 2

What are MOOCs?

Just in case you don’t know what MOOCs are (massive, open online courses), they are usually courses that use video recordings of lectures from top professors from elite universities, such as Stanford, MIT and Harvard, and computer-marked assessments, sometimes combined with unmonitored online student discussions and peer review. MOOCs are made freely available to anyone who wants to sign up. The main platforms for MOOCs are Coursera, edX, Udacity and FutureLearn. There are also quite a different kind of MOOC, called connectivists MOOCs, that are more like online communities of practice

The first MOOCs attracted over 200,000 enrolments per course, although numbers in recent years are more in the 2,500 range. Nevertheless it is estimated that there are more than 34 million participants worldwide registering in MOOCs each year.

Since the first ones launched in 2008, MOOCs have been rapidly evolving.

MOOCs vs online credit courses

Given all the publicity and hype over MOOCs, you could be forgiven for thinking that MOOCs are all you need to know about online learning. However, you would be sadly mistaken.

Online learning existed as a serious part of education at least 15 years before MOOCs arrived on the scene. The following graph shows the increase in online courses for credit up to 2012 in the USA post-secondary education system, before the first MOOCs were launched:

Allen and Seaman, 2013

Allen and Seaman, 2013

By 2013 at least one in three students in post-secondary education was taking at least one online course as part of a degree program. At the moment according to the U.S. Department of Education somewhere between 8-15% of all university degree course enrolments are in fully online courses. Online course enrolments continue to grow at rate (10-20% per annum) much faster than enrolments for on-campus courses (2-3% per annum) (Allen and Seaman, 2016).

So what’s the difference?

  • MOOCs have much higher numbers of initial participants generally than online credit courses; MOOCs can have anywhere between 2,000 to 200,000 participants who sign up, whereas online courses for credit can have anywhere between 20 to 2,000 registered enrolments. Fully online courses for credit usually though have 100 enrolments per course or less;
  • MOOCs, with very few exceptions, do not provide credits towards degrees, although a certificate may be issued (for a price) for those that complete computer-based assessments. However, even the institutions offering MOOCs do not accept successful completion of their courses towards credit in their own institution;
  • MOOCs have very low successful completion rates (less than 10%, usually closer to 5%) whereas fully online courses for credit often have completion rates as high or just below those for equivalent face-to-face courses. For instance in Ontario in 2011, completion rates for all fully online courses for credit in the Ontario public post-secondary system were within 5% of completion rates for face-to-face classes in universities, and within 10% for two year colleges; in other words roughly 80% or more of students in fully online courses for credit will successfully complete;
  • MOOCs provide almost no personal learning support for learners from qualified instructors, whereas most successful fully online courses for credit have a strong instructor online presence;
  • MOOCs generally charge no fee to participate (although a fee may be charged for a certificate of completion); fully online courses for credit normally charge the same fee as, or slightly higher than, those for campus-based courses or programs.

In other words, MOOCs are just one, more recent, form of online learning. They are more like continuing education programs, except they are free. Think of them as a modern form of educational television.

MOOC participation Image: Phil Hill

MOOC participation rates Image: Phil Hill, 2013

The hype

Much has been made about MOOCs disrupting the higher education system (Christensen, 2010), being a solution to educational problems in developing countries (Friedman, 2013), and being a threat to the existence of universities. Leslie Wilson of the European University Association has commented that MOOCs have forced Vice Chancellors to focus on teaching and learning (which I find a somewhat sad comment: why weren’t they focusing on that before MOOCs came along)?

However, after all the initial publicity, MOOCs have settled down into an important but relatively small niche in post-secondary education, a form of continuing education that still struggles to find a successful business model that works for the universities that supply MOOCs.

Why then all the fuss?

Good question! There is a combination of factors that have resulted in the publicity and hype.

One of the most important is that the development of MOOCs was largely driven by faculty (and mainly computer-science faculty) from highly prestigious, elite universities such as Stanford, MIT and Harvard. This has resulted in a bandwagon effect of follow my leader from other universities. Whatever the faults or weaknesses of MOOCs, these elite universities have made online learning highly visible, whereas before, although online courses for credit had been slowly gaining ground, online learning was still seen as peripheral and slightly disreputable.

MOOCs also coincided with a time when states in the USA were making big cuts in higher education budgets due to the 2008 financial recession, leading to lack of tax revenues; many saw MOOCs as an alternative to high cost, campus-based universities. Over time, this argument has become less convincing, partly due to the lack of recognition for credit of successful MOOC completion, and partly due to the difficulties of developing the high level of skills needed outside the purely quantitative subject areas with so little learner support .

Implications

  • Most faculty will need, at least in the short-term, to focus on online courses, blended or fully online, for credit, not MOOCs. These for credit online courses will need different approaches in terms of course design and learner support from MOOCs, if high completion rates are to be achieved and high level learning skills are to be developed in students;
  • For some ‘star’ faculty in subject areas where the university is particularly or uniquely strong, MOOCs will still be an attractive proposition, boosting both the star faculty member’s reach and reputation, and the brand of the university;
  • MOOC design will evolve, probably converging towards the designs used for successful for-credit online courses, but this will likely increase costs; at the same time, the design of for-credit courses may also benefit from some of the lessons in ‘scaling’ from successful MOOCs;
  • there are many other forms of online learning besides MOOCs, and within online courses for credit there are many different approaches; it is important to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each of these variations in online learning, so the appropriate choices can be made. This is the topic of my next post in this series.

Follow-up

If you want to know more about MOOCs, and their strengths and weaknesses, here is some suggested further homework (if you read/watch it all, possibly 2 hours of reading/watching):

Up next

‘What kinds of online learning are there?’ (to be posted early in the week 25-31 July, 2016)

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.

References

Allen, L. and Seaman, J. (2016) Online Report Card: Tracking Online Education in the United States Wellesley MA: Babson Survey Research Group

Downes, S. (2016) Connectivism, MOOCs and Innovation, Stephen Downes, July 25

Christensen, C. (2010) Disrupting Class, Expanded Edition: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns New York: McGraw-Hill

Friedman, T. (2013) Revolution Hits the Universities New York Times, January 26

Automation or empowerment: online learning at the crossroads

Image: Applift

Image: AppLift, 2015

You are probably, like me, getting tired of the different predictions for 2016. So I’m not going to do my usual look forward for the year for individual developments in online learning. Instead, I want to raise a fundamental question about which direction online learning should be heading in the future, because the next year could turn out to be very significant in determining the future of online learning.

The key question we face is whether online learning should aim to replace teachers and instructors through automation, or whether technology should be used to empower not only teachers but also learners. Of course, the answer will always be a mix of both, but getting the balance right is critical.

An old but increasingly important question

This question, automation or human empowerment, is not new. It was raised by B.F. Skinner (1968) when he developed teaching machines in the early 1960s. He thought teaching machines would eventually replace teachers. On the other hand, Seymour Papert (1980) wanted computing to empower learners, not to teach them directly. In the early 1980s Papert got children to write computer code to improve the way they think and to solve problems. Papert was strongly influenced by Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, and in particular that children constructed rather than absorbed knowledge.

In the 1980s, as personal computers became more common, computer-assisted learning (CAL or CAD) became popular, using computer-marked tests and early forms of adaptive learning. Also in the 1980s the first developments in artificial intelligence were applied, in the form of intelligent math tutoring. Great predictions were made then, as now, about the potential of AI to replace teachers.

Then along came the Internet. Following my first introduction to the Internet in a friend’s basement in Vancouver, I published an article in the first edition of the Journal of Distance Education, entitled ‘Computer-assisted learning or communications: which way for IT in distance education?’ (1986). In this paper I argued that the real value of the Internet and computing was to enable asynchronous interaction and communication between teacher and learners, and between learners themselves, rather than as teaching machines. This push towards a more constructivist approach to the use of computing in education was encapsulated in Mason and Kaye’s book, Mindweave (1989). Linda Harasim has since argued that online collaborative learning is an important theory of learning in its own right (Harasim, 2012).

In the 1990s, David Noble of York University attacked online learning in particular for turning universities into ‘Digital Diploma Mills’:

‘universities are not only undergoing a technological transformation. Beneath that change, and camouflaged by it, lies another: the commercialization of higher education.’

Noble (1998) argued that

‘high technology, at these universities, is often used not to ……improve teaching and research, but to replace the visions and voices of less-prestigious faculty with the second-hand and reified product of academic “superstars”.

However, contrary to Noble’s warnings, for fifteen years most university online courses followed more the route of interaction and communication between teachers and students than computer-assisted learning or video lectures, and Noble’s arguments were easily dismissed or forgotten.

Then along came lecture capture and with it, in 2011, Massive Open Online Courses (xMOOCs) from Coursera, Udacity and edX, driven by elite, highly selective universities, with their claims of making the best professors in the world available to everyone for free. Noble’s nightmare suddenly became very real. At the same time, these MOOCs have resulted in much more interest in big data, learning analytics, a revival of adaptive learning, and claims that artificial intelligence will revolutionize education, since automation is essential for managing such massive courses.

Thus we are now seeing a big swing back to the automation of learning, driven by powerful computing developments, Silicon Valley start-up thinking, and a sustained political push from those that want to commercialize education (more on this later). Underlying these developments is a fundamental conflict of philosophies and pedagogies, with automation being driven by an objectivist/behaviourist view of the world, compared with the constructivist approaches of online collaborative learning.

In other words, there are increasingly stark choices to be made about the future of online learning. Indeed, it is almost too late – I fear the forces of automation are winning – which is why 2016 will be such a pivotal year in this debate.

Automation and the commercialization of education

These developments in technology are being accompanied by a big push in the United States, China, India and other countries towards the commercialization of online learning. In other words, education is being seen increasingly as a commodity that can be bought and sold. This is not through the previous and largely discredited digital diploma mills of the for-profit online universities such as the University of Phoenix that David Noble feared, but rather through the encouragement and support of commercial computer companies moving into the education field, companies such as Coursera, Lynda.com and Udacity.

Audrey Watters and EdSurge both produced lists of EdTech ‘deals’ in 2015 totalling between $1-$2 billion. Yes, that’s right, that’s $1-$2 billion in investment in private ed tech companies in the USA (and China) in one year alone. At the same time, entrepreneurs are struggling to develop sustainable business models for ed tech investment, because with education funded publicly, a ‘true’ market is restricted. Politicians, entrepreneurs and policy makers on the right in the USA increasingly see a move to automation as a way of reducing government expenditure on education, and one means by which to ‘free up the market’.

Another development that threatens the public education model is the move by very rich entrepreneurs such as the Gates, the Hewletts and the Zuckerbergs to move their massive personal wealth into ‘charitable’ foundations or corporations and use this money for their pet ‘educational’ initiatives that also have indirect benefits for their businesses. Ian McGugan (2015) in the Globe and Mail newspaper estimates that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is worth potentially $45 billion, and one of its purposes is to promote the personalization of learning (another name hi-jacked by computer scientists; it’s a more human way of describing adaptive learning). Since one way Facebook makes its money is by selling personal data, forgive my suspicions that the Zuckerberg initiative is a not-so-obvious way of collecting data on future high earners. At the same time, the Chang Zuckerberg initiative enables the Zuckerberg’s to avoid paying tax on their profits from Facebook. Instead then of paying taxes that could be used to support public education, these immensely rich foundations enable a few entrepreneurs to set the agenda for how computing will be used in education.

Why not?

Technology is disrupting nearly every other business and profession, so why not education? Higher education in particular requires a huge amount of money, mostly raised through taxes and tuition fees, and it is difficult to tie results directly to investment. Surely we should be looking at ways in which technology can change higher education so that it is more accessible, more affordable and more effective in developing the knowledge and skills required in today’s and tomorrow’s society?

Absolutely. It is not so much the need for change that I am challenging, but the means by which this change is being promoted. In essence, a move to automated learning, while saving costs, will not improve the learning that matters, and particularly the outcomes needed in a digital age, namely, the high level intellectual skills of critical thinking, innovation, entrepreneurship, problem-solving , high-level multimedia communication, and above all, effective knowledge management.

To understand why automated approaches to learning are inappropriate to the needs of the 21st century we need to look particularly at the tools and methods being proposed.

The problems with automating learning

The main challenge for computer-directed learning such as information transmission and management through Internet-distributed video lectures, computer-marked assessments, adaptive learning, learning analytics, and artificial intelligence is that they are based on a model of learning that has limited applications. Behaviourism works well in assisting rote memory and basic levels of comprehension, but does not enable or facilitate deep learning, critical thinking and the other skills that are essential for learners in a digital age.

R. and D. Susskind (2015) in particular argue that there is a new age in artificial intelligence and adaptive learning driven primarily by what they call the brute force of more powerful computing. Why AI failed so dramatically in the 1980s, they argue, was because computer scientists tried to mimic the way that humans think, and computers then did not have the capacity to handle information in the way they do now. When however we use the power of today’s computing, it can solve previously intractable problems through analysis of massive amounts of data in ways that humans had not considered.

There are several problems with this argument. The first is that the Susskinds are correct in that computers operate differently from humans. Computers are mechanical and work basically on a binary operating system. Humans are biological and operate in a far more sophisticated way, capable of language creation as well as language interpretation, and use intuition as well as deductive thinking. Emotion as well as memory drives human behaviour, including learning. Furthermore humans are social animals, and depend heavily on social contact with other humans for learning. In essence humans learn differently from the way machine automation operates.

Unfortunately, computer scientists frequently ignore or are unaware of the research into human learning. In particular they are unaware that learning is largely developmental and constructed, and instead impose an old and less appropriate method of teaching based on behaviourism and an objectivist epistemology. If though we want to develop the skills and knowledge needed in a digital age, we need a more constructivist approach to learning.

Supporters of automation also make another mistake in over-estimating or misunderstanding how AI and learning analytics operate in education. These tools reflect a highly objectivist approach to teaching, where procedures can be analysed and systematised in advance. However, although we know a great deal about learning in general, we still know very little about how thinking and decision-making operate biologically in individual cases. At the same time, although brain research is promising to unlock some of these secrets, most brain scientists argue that while we are beginning to understand the relationship between brain activity and very specific forms of behaviour, there is a huge distance to travel before we can explain how these mechanisms affect learning in general or how an individual learns in particular. There are too many variables (such as emotion, memory, perception, communication, as well as neural activity) at play to find an isomorphic fit between the firing of neurons and computer ‘intelligence’.

The danger then with automation is that we drive humans to learn in ways that best suit how machines operate, and thus deny humans the potential of developing the higher levels of thinking that make humans different from machines. For instance, humans are better than machines at dealing with volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous situations, which is where we find ourselves in today’s society.

Lastly, both AI and adaptive learning depend on algorithms that predict or direct human behaviour. These algorithms though are not transparent to the end users. To give an example, learning analytics are being used to identify students at high risk of failure, based on correlations of previous behaviour online by previous students. However, for an individual, should a software program be making the decision as to whether that person is suitable for higher education or a particular course? If so, should that person know the grounds on which they are considered unsuitable and be able to challenge the algorithm or at least the principles on which that algorithm is based? Who makes the decision about these algorithms – a computer scientist using correlated data, or an educator concerned with equitable access? The more we try to automate learning, the greater the danger of unintended consequences, and the more need for educators rather than computer scientists to control the decision-making.

The way forward

In the past, I used to think of computer scientists as colleagues and friends in designing and delivering online learning. I am now increasingly seeing at least some of them as the enemy. This is largely to do with the hubris of Silicon Valley, which believes that computer scientists can solve any problem without knowing anything about the problem itself. MOOCs based on recorded lectures are a perfect example of this, being developed primarily by a few computer scientists from Stanford (and unfortunately blindly copied by many people in universities who should have known better.)

We need to start with the problem, which is how do we prepare learners for the knowledge and skills they will need in today’s society. I have argued (Bates, 2015) that we need to develop, in very large numbers of people, high level intellectual and practical skills that require the construction and development of knowledge, and that enable learners to find, analyse, evaluate and apply knowledge appropriately.

This requires a constructivist approach to learning which cannot be appropriately automated, as it depends on high quality interaction between knowledge experts and learners. There are many ways to accomplish this, and technology can play a leading role, by enabling easy access to knowledge, providing opportunities for practice in experientially-based learning environments, linking communities of scholars and learners together, providing open access to unlimited learning resources, and above all by enabling students to use technology to access, organise and demonstrate their knowledge appropriately.

These activities and approaches do not easily lend themselves to massive economies of scale through automation, although they do enable more effective outcomes and possibly some smaller economies of scale. Automation can be helpful in developing some of the foundations of learning, such as basic comprehension or language acquisition. But at the heart of developing the knowledge and skills needed in today’s society, the role of a human teacher, instructor or guide will remain absolutely essential. Certainly, the roles of teachers and instructors will need to change quite dramatically, teacher training and faculty development will be critical for success, and we need to use technology to enable students to take more responsibility for their own learning, but it is a dangerous illusion to believe that automation is the solution to learning in the 21st century.

Protecting the future

There are several practical steps that need to be taken to prevent the automation of teaching.

  1. Educators – and in particular university presidents and senior civil servants with responsibility for education – need to speak out clearly about the dangers of automation, and the technology alternatives available that still exploit its potential and will lead to greater cost-effectiveness. This is not an argument against the use of technology in education, but the need to use it wisely so we get the kind of educated population we need in the 21st century.
  2. Computer scientists need to show more respect to educators and be less arrogant. This means working collaboratively with educators, and treating them as equals.
  3. We – teachers and educational technologists – need to apply in our own work and disseminate better to those outside education what we already know about effective learning and teaching.
  4. Faculty and teachers need to develop compelling technology alternatives to automation that focus on the skills and knowledge needed in a digital age, such as:
    • experiential learning through virtual reality (e.g. Loyalist College’s training of border service agents)
    • networking learners online with working professionals, to solve real world problems (e.g. by developing a program similar to McMaster’s integrated science program for online/blended delivery)
    • building strong communities of practice through connectivist MOOCs (e.g. on climate change or mental health) to solve global problems
    • empowering students to use social media to research and demonstrate their knowledge through multimedia e-portfolios (e.g. UBC’s ETEC 522)
    • designing openly accessible high quality, student-activated simulations and games but designed and monitored by experts in the subject area.
  5. Governments need to put as much money into research into learning and educational technology as they do into innovation in industry. Without better and more defensible theories of learning suitable for a digital age, we are open to any quack or opportunist who believes he or she has the best snake oil. More importantly, with better theory and knowledge of learning disseminated and applied appropriately, we can have a much more competitive workforce and a more just society.
  6. We need to educate our politicians about the dangers of commercialization in education through the automation of learning and fight for a more equal society where the financial returns on technology applications are more equally shared.
  7. Become edupunks and take back the web from powerful commercial interests by using open source, low cost, easy to use tools in education that protect our privacy and enable learners and teachers to control how they are used.

That should keep you busy in 2016.

Your views are of course welcome – unless you are a bot.

References

Bates, A. (1986) Computer assisted learning or communications: which way for information technology in distance education? Journal of Distance Education Vol. 1, No. 1

Bates, A. (2015) Teaching in a Digital Age Victoria BC: BCcampus

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Mason, R. and Kaye, A (Eds).(1989)  Mindweave: communication, computers and distance education. Oxford: Pergamon

McGugan, I. (2015)Why the Zuckerberg donation is not a bundle of joy, Globe and Mail, December 2

Noble, D. (1998) Digital Diploma Mills, Monthly Review http://monthlyreview.org/product/digital_diploma_mills/

Papert, S. (1980) Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas New York: Basic Books

Skinner, B. (1968)  The Technology of Teaching, 1968 New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts

Susskind, R. and Susskind, D. (2015) The Future of the Professions: How Technology will Change the Work of Human Experts Oxford UK: Oxford University Press

Watters, A. (2015) The Business of EdTech, Hack Edu, undated http://2015trends.hackeducation.com/business.html

Winters, M. (2015) Christmas Bonus! US Edtech Sets Record With $1.85 Billion Raised in 2015 EdSurge, December 21 https://www.edsurge.com/news/2015-12-21-christmas-bonus-us-edtech-sets-record-with-1-85-billion-raised-in-2015