From Ed Tech to Learning

I’ve been working in educational technology for the last 12 years and during that time I’ve come to the disappointing realisation that the mission of most Ed Tech is focussed only on facilitating administration of education. On top of that, the products that aren’t addressing administration needs are essentially concerned with the distribution of content. And lastly those that seek to to allow interaction are vastly underpowered, featureless and second-rate. In a golden age of digital technology, where access and the ability to develop solutions is more available than any other time, it’s a sad state of affairs.

To me there’s a clear disconnect between the technologies that are available and what’s possible in terms of learning. This intersection is something that I’m not just interested in, but passionate about. It’s thinking about technology for learning, not for the administration of it. It’s about shifting the terms away from the institution and towards the learner, and for them to be able to utilise technology for their personal process of learning.

It’s really time we start moving beyond the consumption of content and focus in on the process of learning – of how we develop an understanding and making sense of a topic. It’s in this space that we’re really missing any specific technologies and tools, and it’s an area that’s not particularly well supported at the moment.

Ed Tech is stuck on the administrative aspects of universities and schools and helping them facilitate learning by creating spaces, delivering content, assigning students, receiving and returning assignments. But the actual learning? Well that’s left completely up to the student. There isn’t a defined set of tools for the student to engage with to help them learn, and quite often they’re just left navigating a dump of content – a whole series of PDF files, web based documents, videos, books and resources. And that’s it, at that point the vast majority of Ed Tech stops. There seems to be an assumption from that point on learning happens, we’re not quite sure how, but given the lack of learning tools then I’d say it’s something akin to osmosis. That by simply being in contact with content that we learn. There’s no further support of learning itself, it’s now up to the students to develop their own processes for not only consuming the information, but making sense of it. We rarely teach the skills required to take notes, organise information, sort through data, develop our ideas, and there are even less technology that enables or support learners do those tasks. Even though it’s at that point that the actual learning is taking place!

Yes we have assessment tasks, and yes good assessment helps to process content into something more tangible and coherent, but even then we’re stuck with outdated and modelled forms and methods. For most LMS’s the prowess of their assessment capabilities is in their quizzing tool. Seriously, quizzes? At the same time we can always rely on good old essays. Except for the fact that you can’t, not with essay mills and plagiarism (or more commonly non-adherence to academic publishing standards) running rife. Instead of rethinking their existence we now spend millions of dollars on surveillance systems and punitive tools like Turnitin. Assessment could be the saviour, but what great assessment tools are out there? What assessment tech have you seen beyond replication of existing systems and methods?

There is a gap in the tools that we have today, and like I’ve said before, it’s these gaps that create a really interesting space

If we want to innovate then we have to concentrate on the problems – the gaps, the cracks, the spaces in between – because that’s where the exciting change can occur. That’s where you find eager and keen participants, problems that really need to be addressed and where investment options are available. It’s also where you’ll find the opportunity and problems that demand creativity and engagement. It’s where good work comes from.
– A final word on MOOCs & EdTech for 2013 – Tim Klapdor

It’s those gaps and spaces which are the areas that I’m still really excited by. When it comes to most “Ed Tech”, the commercial juggernaut that software in education has become, that I feel incredibly jaded. I’ve been doing this too long that I don’t just know that it’s constantly reinventing the same old methods and practices just with a different back or front end, I’ve seen it happen. More than once. Ed Tech is stuck and is spinning its wheels.

But, if we start thinking about and conceptualising technology as a tool for learning – how do I utilise this technology in order to learn? Then we’re going into new spaces.

Over the next couple of weeks my plan is to plant some seeds – to acknowledge that there is tech out there that does fit this model (huge fan of DoOO, annotations tools and wiki spaces), although often it’s just coopted and hacked to do it – but to also share some of my ideas about this space.

What could we do if we focussed on developed technology for learning?

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Blockchain in Education

I was asked to do a bit of analysis of Blockchain technology for my job at CSU and investigate what the potential is at this point in time as a learning technology. I’ve been digging into Blockchain for quite a while now, the technology intrigued me when it first appeared and so too did the culture and ideology behind it. I’m a bit skeptical to be honest about the tech itself and after living through the first wave of hype fuelled inflation and crash, my skepticism seems worthwhile. I added some alternative ways of achieving similar things to what blockchain offers at the end of the document, which I personally wish would get perhaps more attention than Blockchain. This is the original draft – I decided to use this version as it’s more authentically my voice, rather than the version that was edited and circulated around the university.


Blockchain has a lot of hype around it – consider it on the upward side of Gartner’s Hype Cycle1.

researchmethodology-illustration-hype-cycle

For all intents and purposes, it remains all hype. There is yet to be a useful example of blockchain deployment in any sector. Many may point to Bitcoin as a success but in reality, it hardly paints a positive picture. Its wild ride began with it being the currency of choice for illegal markets, it’s been extremely susceptible to manipulation and then there was the massive inflation which was followed by crashes that has left many bankrupt. None of this paint Bitcoin in a positive light and it lacks the fundamental stability of a proven technology. You also have to also remember the piles of copy-cat crypto-currencies that were spawned and failed so fast they made Ponzi schemes jealous.

Blockchain is still a theoretical technology that more often than not, replicates existing technology. It can be incredibly disruptive technology, but not because it is radically different or new, but because it tends to change who the masters are, not by empowering the end users.

Do You Need Blockchain?

Useful flowchart from the [National Institute of Standards and Technology](https://nvlpubs.nist.gov/nistpubs/ir/2018/NIST.IR.8202.pdf)

Summary

Watch & See – As of today there are very few applications of blockchain that would be ultimately useful in a learning and teaching context. Most that are available and on the horizon, seek to perform functions that are already part of the EdTech suite of tools currently deployed on most campuses. Doing something that is already handled by the LMS with blockchain doesn’t make it an improvement or a better product. There may well be developments in the technology that provide differentiated and improved functionality within the learning and teaching space – we’re just a way-off seeing those at this point in time.

Key concepts behind the Blockchain

  1. Distributed – rather than a single piece of infrastructure, the blockchain requires multiple network points to operate. So rather than a single database living on a server (which could be replicated, backed up, secured and disaster recoverable), a distributed system has a shared system of infrastructure to support it. This theoretically makes it more robust, but modern cloud infrastructure allows traditional databases to have similar functionality.
  2. Cryptography – The distributed infrastructure creates an overhead by requiring data to be synced and shared across multiple instances. To get around this issues, the blockchain uses cryptography to encode the data into a block of transactions that are linked together as a chain. This cryptography allows data to be secure but requires a tremendous amount of processing power when compared to writing a record in a database.
    BlockchainEnergy
  3. Immutable – This set of records, often referred to as a ledger, increases in size because it’s immutable. Data can’t be deleted or purged from the set, because they are cryptographically linked. If a name was stored, which may change due to marriage for example, there is no way to retrieve and change the record, the system doesn’t allow it. A traditional database has read, write and update functions available, with these limited by roles and administration. The blockchain replaces these traditional roles with technology. The blockchain and the software that write to it are the arbiters of data and maintaining the records. This opens up data to being “hacked” and changed without any authority or oversight of the central data.
  4. Trust – A central idea behind blockchain technology is that of trust. Many of its proponents suggest that the cryptographic component of the technology reduces the need for trust in institutions, and we can instead have trust in the code. This allows the point of control from institutions and established businesses to those who develop the code. Instead of replacing the need for trust, it replaces who it is you must trust.

Applications of Blockchain

There are plenty of articles available on the possible application of blockchain technology in education 2 3 4 5. The main applications listed include:

  • Transcripts – Providing access via the blockchain to student transcript for verification, proof of learning and performance.
  • Credentials – Support the recording of other credentials and attainments of study – such as badges, graduate learning outcomes.
  • Student Portfolios – Providing a body of work that a student completed.
  • Identity – Providing verification process for an individuals identity and their attainments and records as a student.
  • Research Recording – Record and verify publication records and research records.
  • Finances – Manage funding and spending using a currency. Could be useful for internal transactions and reduce shuffling money around actual bank accounts.
  • Fund Raising – Use an Initial Coin Offering (ICO) to help fund raise for a specific cause. Holders of the coins could be similar to shareholders or crowd-funding programs, unlocking ownership or rewards through their investment. This application could be useful for funding research, new initiatives or gauging support and acquiring stakeholders.

Review of Blockchain

Lack of Proven Applications – There are very few proven applications utilising blockchain technology at this point in time. While the technology is still relatively new there just aren’t any scaled success stories that have wide adoption.

Lack of Differentiation – There are very few applications that utilise blockchain that couldn’t be achieved through other means. There is no “killer app” in terms of a sustained, stable and successful application of blockchain.

Distributed vs Centralised – As an institution CSU needs to ensure that a distributed model suits our operations. At this point in time a centralised model would be far more scaleable and cost effective. Distributed technology still requires infrastructure and infrastructure costs and there needs to be a clear purpose for the institution to seek a distributed model e.g. collaboration with other universities, education providers or government initiatives.

Privacy – There are issues with key concepts of blockchain that present risks in terms of student and staff privacy. The idea of immutable data means that a permanent record is now available in perpetuity and the right to be forgotten and the idea of youthful indiscretions will be lost.

Legal Changes – The immutable data also presents significant challenges if there are changes in the Law. Given recent data breaches it is not unimaginable that there will be a significant review of laws around privacy and data. There are currently questions around blockchains compatibility to existing international laws like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Part of a Stack – It’s important to note that blockchain often only describes one layer of a specific application or service. An application usually has a “stack” of different layers that perform specific function – database, credentialing, user interface, etc. So an app may work in a completely traditional centralised way for the vast majority of its functionality, but publish its final data as an export function to a blockchain. This ledger can then be used to query or verify against, so support a different part of a service. So the blockchain is only used to store specific data for one specific function. Many companies have overemphasised their reliance and important of the blockchain to play to the hype and get

Questions for Blockchain

Immutable Data – This concept requires a rethink of what data is being stored and what is it being used for.
– How do you keep data up to date?
– How is this useful beyond transaction records?
– Do we want to keep transactions records?
– How does this benefit our staff and students?
– Will legacy files just become a drain on resources?
– How do you address a “take down notice” e.g. Privacy Notice, Copyright, Content Issue?
– What data should be immutable?
– Immutable data also has an effect on changes to technology. As technology evolves it tends to get smarter and perform better. Will blockchain data be able to do that?

Privacy and Security – The distributed nature of the ledger means it is more open and vulnerable.
– How can you ensure privacy and security while maintaining an accessible system?
– How can you prevent nefarious access and use of the data?
– How do you ensure anonymity?
– What links between data are required?
– What happens when data is required to be taken down?

Power and Resourcing – The simple fact is that creating cryptographic record requires far more energy than a traditional database. The Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index provides some simple explanations as well as some of the issues and current usage of the technology.
– How does this fit with CSU’s Green image?
– Do we need to compete this measurement in future procurement processes?
– How does this energy drain effect users of the system?

Alternatives to the Blockchain

While the hype seems focussed on blockchain based technologies, it is important to note that similar functions, performance and applications could be developed using alternative approaches:

  1. Federation – There has been a massive growth in the number of federated applications. These applications utilise an agreed upon standards of operation in a collective fashion which allows multiple instances of applications to be run, including internally, and connected with others. These systems provide data and identity portability as well as networking and collaborative features.
    > e.g. Mastadon is a popular Twitter alternative. CSU could run it’s own instance of Mastadon for staff and students, who can connect to the local network, but also to other instances. Moodle.Net is a product current being developed along this model and aims to create a “new open social media platform for educators, initially focused on the collaborative curation of collections of open resources”.
  2. Common Standards – Many of the benefits alluded to by blockchain in terms of data could be achieved through more rigorous adoption of common standards and protocols. These collective approaches require effort and negotiation to occur, which often slows down the process, but some of the most useful components of the internet have come through this approach.
    > e.g. The W3C group overseas web standards which are developed collectively and then rolled out via web browsers. These standards provide more interoperable tools to develop upon and more robust support than proprietary ones.
  3. Cooperative Approaches – Some of the appeal of blockchain is that it can disrupt control of existing systems and protocols. For many the main appeal of Bitcoin was not the technology, but the fact that it wrested control over currency transactions from the Banks. When it comes to developing new standards and tools these could be done in a cooperative way instead of a competitive one.
    > e.g. One of the applications of blockchain for Higher Education is the validation of an individuals certification. Rather than rely on unproven blockchain technology the university sector could all work together to produce this tool that the market is seeking. The existing institutions would remain in control of their data and could charge a fee for service to maintain it.
  4. Self Sovereign Technologies – A further evolution of the federated concept is for Self Sovereign Technologies, ones that are not led or owned by institutions – but at the individual level. These systems could allow students to aggregate their data into a platform that they control and provide access to institutions rather than vice-versa.
    > e.g. A self sovereign learning application would allow the student to upload their assessment task into their own app, and then forward that on to the intuitional LMS. The marks would be carried out at the institutional system and then relayed back to the student. With this kind of system the student always retains a copy of their work, as well as the materials provided by the institution and any interactions they may have.

Appendix

Some interesting things that others have said about Blockchain.

Is blockchain a false idol? – ANZ Report

The truth is blockchain is not the solution for every project that needs a database. A 2018 study out of China showed despite the plethora of blockchain-related projects entering the market, 92 per cent failed – and did so in an average of just over a year.

DTA dunks on blockchain hype saying for every use there is a better alternative

Quotes from Federal Government’s Digital Transformation Agency

“Blockchain is an interesting technology that would well worth being observed but without standardisation and a lot of work to come — for every use of blockchain you would consider today, there is a better technology — alternate databases, secure connections, standardised API engagement,” Digital Transformation Agency chief digital officer Peter Alexander told Senate Estimates on Tuesday.

”Blockchain: Interesting technology but early on in its development, it’s kind of at the top of a hype cycle.”

What does the indelible nature of blockchain mean for students learning? Is their content always available?

Issues for GDPR for blockchain applications:

Into India

So I’m off to India. I meant to post this yesterday when the media embargo was lifted but I went through a mad rush to pack and prepare.

Last year there was a call to join a Young Entrepreneur Boot Camp supported by the New South Wales Government. I applied and was lucky to get be accepted into the program. For myself and another 40 startups it’s an opportunity to head over to India and learn about one of the most interesting countries on the planet.

This is a huge opportunity to get experience on the ground with some of the most innovative and dynamic startups, companies and investors on the planet. I’m really looking to immersing myself in the culture and absorbing as much as I can during the 10 days we’ll be there. It’s a short trip, but it’s an incredibly rich itinerary that we’re booked into, and we’ll get to visit some of the key centres of innovation in India – Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad and Bengaluru.

chickon-banner

I’m taking our Chickon idea over to India as we can see a huge role for our technology in helping to feed world. Chickon itself is a vision based weighing system, using video and AI we can provide producers with real time measurements across a much larger sample size than current technologies. The aim is to use this data to drive improvements in animal health and to make dramatic improvements to efficiency right along the supply chain.

In plain English – we can help ensure that the chickens you buy in the store are the healthiest and freshest that you can possibly buy.

I’m going into the trip with a pretty open mind. I want to learn as much as I can from the time in the country and hopefully make some meaningful connections. It would be great to find out more about some of the investment opportunities in India, but also opportunities to collaborate on projects. I think there’s a huge opportunity to develop ties with regional Australia and to leverage the unique resources, skills and talents that are available.

20190123-Tim-Mackenzie-Jake-IMG_0180.jpg

Me, Mackenzie & Jake

There are actually 3 startups heading over from Wagga Wagga – all alumni of the AgriTech Incubator program. Jake from Rugby Matcher and Mackenzie from Outback Wings. They’re doing a great job stimulating and supporting the local startups and this is a good testament of that work.

This is my first trip overseas to somewhere really foreign to me – language, culture and customs. I’m quite nervous about it shows how naive I am about so much of the world. I’m currently up to my ears reading about India and trying to get familiar with some of the cultural practices and customs so that I don’t make a complete fool of myself.

The plan it to write up the trip as we go along. I’ll try and document as much as I can and share it with you here – a return to actual blogging :-). It’ll be a good opportunity to capture as much as I can from the experience.

So at the moment I’m in Sydney to meet with the rest of the cohort and Sunday we fly out. It’s going to be a mind blowing experience!

2018. Yes, I Survived.

Yes it’s time for my end of year reflection. The post-Christmas, pre-New Year period is made for contemplation, especially when the weather is hot, the cricket is slow and the Christmas Ham seeps into every meal.

It’s the time of year 18 years ago my Dad passed away too. We had great Christmas and then went head long into a period of grief and hurt as a family. It’s a period where I was numb, my memory is hazy and while I know stuff happened, those 2 or 3 years after have merged into a tangled mess of memories and emotions. It’s after we visited Dad’s grave that I sit down to write this up, feeling a bit choked up and malaised.

This year has been bit of a roller coaster. It started well, building on some of the momentum and success from 2017. I changed my work arrangements and dropped to 4 days a week of work at the uni. That day off was great, I wished we’d been able to afford it a long time ago. It was a release valve, I could get stuff done that needed to be done, or wallow around a bit when life got a bit hectic and chaotic. It was a chance to recover and rejuvenate.

I got to spend more time in startup world – winning the AgriHack challenge with Rob and Ben with out [Chickon] idea. We went through the process of setting up a company, applying for a research grant, and going into a few more competitions – Hybrid World Adelaide and the AgInstitute conference.

[https://twitter.com/RiAus/status/1021285902172094465]

[https://twitter.com/AnikaMolesworth/status/1068686221986029568]

We didn’t manage to repeat the success of the year before at these events but it was a great learning experience. I learnt a ton at the Hybrid World Lab and conference, I got to speak to speak to the biggest audience so far and in front of the biggest damn screen I’ve seen. There was growth and learning happening which was great. It wasn’t anything to do with technology, which was refreshing, and it didn’t involve trying to help create and generate change. It was personal and it left me asking a lot of questions of myself, what I’m doing and where I’m going. I was frustrated a few things, especially the research grant, didn’t get up but what’s done it done.

Career-wise I don’t seem to be really going in the direction I anticipated or projected, there’s a sense of coming full cycle, which includes that unnerving sense of coming back to where you started. The year ended with the offer that I go back to the roll I started in at the university 11 years ago. The adage of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” has been ringing in my ears for a lot of this year. There’s a realisation that the rhetoric about innovation in my institution hasn’t been met with any tangible action to change nor willingness by those in leadership to embrace it. There’s a cultural inertia that I’ve felt the full force of over the last few years, an unwillingness to bend or move forward, so it’s no wonder that my two year secondment to uImagine is set to end a year early. I have mixed emotions, but I exhausted by the politics and decision making. I don’t seem to able to make my voice heard or do the work I feel will make an impact and be fulfilling. Instead I spent far too long single handedly reskinning Blackboard, developing up a style guide, building all the sites, writing all the HTML and CSS, running training and communication sessions. I also had to bear the full brunt of complaints that something had finally changed at the university and that they weren’t happy with it. A lot of decisions got made that I didn’t agree with yet I had to deal with the fallout. It’s hard dealing with that feedback when you essentially agree with the points being raised.

After a very long hard start to the year I took some time out from work and spent a couple of months on long service leave. It’s not something I would have expected to accrue, especially not before I turned 40, but here I am. I wasn’t overly happy with work and when they announced that there would be a restructure I decided that it was something I didn’t need or want to be a part of. I’d hoped that on my return it would be sorted, but typically it’s now been delayed until June. It seems like I’m expected to just sit in limbo for another 6 months till that happens. I’m over it. Despite my service it still seems that there’s an inability within the organisation to treat it’s Human Resources like actual people.

I need a change.

I’ve spend the last few months moving our company from a piece of paper to setting up some structure around it. We now have a name (26fifty), logo, email and a [website]. We’ve grouped our startup projects under one banner and we’re looking at a few new options for other work.

The time off has really given me an opportunity to think about what it is I want to do, what drives me and what my skills really are (decoupled from history and roles and disciplines). For me it’s creativity that’s the driver. I relish nothing more that the solving a problem, coming up with novel solutions, working through them, testing and building them. I’m able to bring my broad set of skills together in those situations and it’s something that I truly enjoy doing. There was a podcast that I listened to early on during my leave that discussed creativity, and something that stuck out at me is that creative people hate repetition. It’s something that I’ve come to learn about myself – that repetition is my enemy – it’s something that I really struggle with. I’m quite happy with a certain level of it – to get a process developed, tested and refined, but at a certain point I get bored with it, frustrated even, and my mind yearns to go elsewhere. I need to find work that supports that, not just a job that pays the way.

So 2018. Politically, socially and emotionally it’s been a dumpster fire. Career wise it’s felt like that too. I’m not going to touch on any of it – you all experienced the nightmare too.

On the family front though it’s been great. Alise has become so much more independent and in so many different ways. I don’t feel I ever come close to the “Best Dad Ever” that she likes to exclaim (especially when dishing out sweet things) but her love keeps me ticking over. I know I’ve been a moody bastard at certain points this year and Clare remains focused and supportive no matter what. She’s provided moments of clarity that have been invaluable, where I’ve only been able to see the tree in front let alone the whole forest. I love our little family and love that two new nieces joined the clan just last week.

2019 – well I’m booked to travel to India for 10 days at the end of January, taking Chickon international before it’s even off the ground. It’s a great opportunity and there’s something to be said about my attitude with the startup to just say yes to everything that comes along. Beyond that… well there’s quite a lot of [Fog of War] ahead. I’m hoping that new opportunities will arise and I’ll hopefully get some more exciting projects to work on.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for journeying down the road with me. Feel free to get in touch – let’s meet up online and have a coffee and a chat!

Peace out, 2018!

Where am I going? What am I doing?

I have just a couple of weeks of long service leave to go. It’s been so good to have a break from work, without the threat of worrying where the next pay check is coming from. I’ve been working since I was 16 and during that time there have been a few stints of unemployment, but they never felt like a break, more like a slow unravelling of everything you had as you try to dodge the poverty line and deal with the onset of depression. In comparison to that this break has been great!

I haven’t had the luxury of being able to travel during this time, unfortunately the family doesn’t accrue the same leave, nor does the bank account stretch far enough to indulge the expense. Instead I’ve been doing admin. I hadn’t realised just how much admin is involved in our modern lives, but when you stop and let it catch up, you end up drowning in it. Modern life is full of tedious tasks and the mundane. Lots of checking stuff and following up with people.


I’ve been using the time to do some re-evaluation of my work and where it is I’m going with it. To be honest I’m keen to make work do more for me, provide more opportunities to learn and grow, to be more of a challenge. I think I’ve settled into doing tasks, rather that achieving things – and there’s a subtle difference between the two. Doing tasks is easier, it requires less effort and expenditure, and I’ve fallen into that over the last few years, mainly because life got hard. Family life changed considerably over the last 6 years, a child and then the fire, were pretty significant life changing events. The disruption to the norm that a child brings was challenging and the need to be in parent mode during all of her waking hours was draining, physically and mentally. The fire and the experience of losing everything, as well as the added trauma of dealing with a recalcitrant and obstinate insurance company, was incredibly stressful. So slipping into a state where work was easy was perhaps inevitable.

At the same time work can’t own me. I’ve given a lot to my job, worked a lot of extra hours, pulled projects out of the fire and tried to offer my insights and knowledge to better the institution, but the reality is they don’t seem to care. Individuals might but the institution doesn’t, and it never will. I need to change my expectations in this regard, to do more for me and to maintain my autonomy. Achieving shouldn’t be the completion of a task or project, I need work to be bigger than that, to give me something in return for my effort. Trying to eek that out of work might be challenging, but at the moment there’s some interesting opportunities on the horizon.

I’ve never held much credence in personality test, and I know Myers Briggs has been discredited on numerous fronts, but the words describing my “personality type” (INTP) have always resonated with me. Say what you like about the theory and practice, the words always resonated with me… deeply. For me it was an articulation of what goes on in my head, and often how I think and behave. It’s not all 100% correct, but there were swathes of my profile that literally describe myself and how I work. Like this:

… their minds are constantly working to generate new theories, or to prove or disprove existing theories. They approach problems and theories with enthusiasm and skepticism, ignoring existing rules and opinions and defining their own approach to the resolution. They seek patterns and logical explanations for anything that interests them. They’re usually extremely bright, and able to be objectively critical in their analysis. They love new ideas, and become very excited over abstractions and theories. They love to discuss these concepts with others. They may seem “dreamy” and distant to others, because they spend a lot of time inside their minds musing over theories. They hate to work on routine things – they would much prefer to build complex theoretical solutions, and leave the implementation of the system to others. They are intensely interested in theory, and will put forth tremendous amounts of time and energy into finding a solution to a problem with has piqued their interest.

There may not be anything to the label of INTP, but that passage describes the kind of worker I am, what I am good at and honestly where I struggle. The routine and the repetition of task based work is something that I’ve become frustrated with and I need to move on to bigger things. That much I know.

After some deep reflection I realise that at my heart I am a creative. I need to create, to be inspired, to build as well as destroy, to move matter (ideas, concepts and code too) and form it into shapes and expressions. I need to work in an environment that will let me do that. One way is to find a role that will let me do that, the other is to make it happen on my own.

And that’s where I am. On the edge of a decision. I’ve been going towards this point, and what I do has led me here. I now need to make the next move and see where it might take me. And maybe it’s not one decision. Maybe it’s not a clean cut, but a fade out/in, a movement between spaces over the year ahead.

My Kodak Moments

I started working on this post some time ago, and it’s sat languishing in my drafts folder. I decided I needed to finish it after reading Why Kodak Died and Fujifilm Thrived: A Tale of Two Film Companies. I loved the articles analysis which broke down the disruptive innovation narrative. At the heart of it, it was Kodak’s lack of diversification that condemned the firm to its fate.

The Kodak story is one of the founding myths of Innovationism. It is foundational to supporting the notions of disruptive innovation and Silicon Valley, as I said:

The lesson from the Kodak story is not the power of disruptive innovation, nor is it the inevitability of technology to swallow up a business. The lesson lies in being able to recognise the points of inflection that could have changed the outcome. An understanding of the environment and conditions that led to key decisions being made.

Earlier this year I read a document that described this point in time as our “Kodak Moment” in Higher Education. Not the kind of moment you want to preserve forever, but one of those inflection points where the decisions we make now will determine our future. That insight is both thrilling and foreboding. How you approach this inflection point has to do with how you interpret history. So below I’ve outlined my “Kodak Moments”, those inflection points that I see Higher Education needing to address. And for no extra cost I’ll throw in some free suggestions for what we could do as an alternative to doubling down on a faster, better film processor.


Confusing what you do for how you do it.

At some point the mission at Kodak got confused and it began to conflate what it did with how it did it. As a company it helped people create memories on film. The “help people create memories” was the what, and the “on film” was the how and somewhere along the way the two became one. In doing so it narrowed the vision so that Kodak became incapable of thinking about itself beyond film. The comparison with Fujifilm suggests that part of their survival was that they unpacked what they did at a much deeper level. They didn’t just capture memories, they had industrial process and manufacturing that could be applied to other industries.

Higher Education seems to be in a similar position. It doesn’t seem capable of articulating what it does. Perhaps it’s because each institution has, and should, have its own unique service to offer. I think all should start with “Helping people …” because it helps define them as a public service, but what comes next isn’t so obvious. What’s strange though is the uniformity of how, across institutions right around the world – a structured program of courses running between 12-14 weeks each. That’s it. That’s the how for higher education and it can’t (or it won’t) think beyond that.

Tip 1: Change the How

If you want innovation in Higher Education then go after the how. The iPod didn’t change what music was, it changed how we listed to it. The iPhone didn’t change what computers did, it changed how they were accessed. The internet didn’t change what information was available, but it certainly revolutionised how we access and share it. If Higher Education wants to innovate it needs to rethink how it does things. Start with how we structure “learning” and rethink the agricultural timetable we seem stuck with as the only model for delivery. Then you can think about how we’re funded, how we engage students, how we engage our communities and how we will create sustainable models of education into the future.

A Lack of Diversity creates Fragility

Kodak relied on income from a small number of sources. Any products Kodak offered were really about bringing people back into using their core product – printing photos. Fujifilm on the other hand diversified their income through product expansion and investments into other areas, which was key to their success when the downturn in film started to bite.

Higher Education is just like Kodak and is incredibly fragile. It relies too heavily on just one product – degrees. Those bits of paper are really what it boils down to, the one product that provides the “rivers of gold”. And considering that there’s very little difference in the how you get those bits of paper you can start to see my concern with Higher Education.

There is no real product differentiation in Higher Education. Sure you can choose different logos and locations but that’s about it. It is a globally saturated market and you have universities around the world teaching the same way for the same outcome. It’s no wonder that every man and his dog in Silicon Valley is queuing up to disrupt the sector – it is ripe for disruption. What has saved education so far is that it’s more complicated than it looks, not the robustness of the existing paradigm.

Tip 2: Focus on Learning

Education has become a product rather than a public good and a civic duty. It’s been Taylorised and Skinner Boxed, quantified and analysed. Learning went from an innately human trait to something that is pathologised. A condition that can be measured, treated and made more effective through Deliverology.

Bring the focus of the institution back to learning. We need real product differentiation and that means rethinking the degree as a product. In a saturated market you can’t simply improve – better, cheaper, faster – it’s just not enough. You must evolve the market. Provide something new but also meaningful. Engage people in more meaningful ways, inject learning into the everyday rather than something you need to take a vacation from life to do. Improving the specs won’t facilitate the change that’s required.

Tip 3: Focus on Connective Spaces

The other thing I wanted to mention here is the University Campus. Some of the most beautifully kept and under utilised places on the planet. Universities are still stuck on their establishment based on exclusivity rather than their establishment for a public services. They seem stuck on excluding their communities, from engaging with them and inviting them to be part of something bigger. Universities aren’t shared spaces despite their prominence within their communities.

Utilise the campus better. Make them available to the public. Host services, build parks and paths and places to explore. Get your community in there and being part of the space. Offer fee for services – get library access, pool and gym passes, sporting fields, meeting rooms and video conferencing. Use the university to be a connective space, not an exclusive one. Demand that research serve local purposes and serves the local community first. Bind yourself to the community you’re in rather than pretending you’re not a part of it.

The Debt Generation

One of the often overlooked facts is that the success of Kodak led to an overload of artefacts. People now had albums full of memories, ones that they barely looked at. In order to attain those memories you were required to invest time, money and space. Kodak had created debt through abundance, that people now had to give something up in order to have memories. This helped create the perfect conditions for an alternative that offered to reduce those factors, to lessen the debt. Early digital photography had technical deficiencies but it was attractive to many users – real time review of photos, easy editing to fix red eye and wonky framing and the simple fact that you could delete photos you didn’t want. What digital photography provided was real world value, one that bypassed the debt incurred through film. By providing that real world benefit they looked past the shortcomings of the technology. It made their users better, made their lives easier and you once you have that you have the momentum to change the market.

I’m not sure I’m can see the real world benefit in Higher Education anymore. Yes education is important, as are our memories, but the level of personal and financial debt required to attain an education today has reached a tipping point. We are at the point where most students have to work in order to study, and I’m talking working at a level close to full time hours rather than a shift or two on the weekend. But have the universities rethought how they teach, how they asses, when they offer classes? Have they given much through to these constraints that students now operate under? Has the bureaucracy changed in anyway? No they plough on with the same how, the same 12-14 week program. The same forms and administrivia in order to get extensions or access services still apply. Sure you can learn online these days, but the courses tend to be designed to force you through content, is that a really attractive off? Is that worth paying money for? Is it worth more than a textbook? Is it worth paying for on top of the text book? Is the piece of paper worth it?

Tip 4: Think Financially

Universities really have to come to the table around the financial viability of what they are offering. Most universities charge the same for online courses as they do for on campus. Many degrees cross subsidise other degrees from the more expensive disciplines, but is that fair on the students? Most courses are structured to get access to government funding, but could they be funded in other ways? Could fees and debt be accumulated in other ways? Could students work with and for the university in order to pay for their tuition?

Universities need to have a dialogue around the broader financials of study, not just the bottom line of their operations. If you fail to do this students will walk, taking their money with them. This isn’t something they’ll tell you about or signal in any way, they just won’t come any more – that’s what we do when we make a financial decision. Engage your students, think differently about how this works, for lack of a better phrase – think outside the box.

A Brand Buys Recognition, not Loyalty

A lot is made about the strength of Kodaks name and position in the market. They were the dominant force globally, They had a great brand. But a brand isn’t the same thing as loyalty. People, despite everything that marketing departments will tell you, are not loyal to a brand. They choose a brand – for financial reasons, for convenience, for purpose – but never based on anything as obscure as loyalty. Could loyalty have saved Kodak? No. Kodak wasn’t anything that you could be loyal to. It was an industrial processes and manufacturing outfit, it made widgets that went into gizmos where you clicked buttons.

Universities however are full of people, and they can elicit loyalty. However it’s sad to see how little universities around the world grasp that. As they have commoditised their product, they’ve also sort to commoditise their workforce. This is clearly illustrated in the rise of casualisation to the epic proportions we see now. Labour within the university has become increasingly precarious, and more and more teaching is done by people by casualised staff. Because of the nature of their employment these staff aren’t loyal to the institution, in fact they can’t – in order to make a living wage many have to teach across multiple institutions.

Do you think our students are any different? When we have commodified the degree and there is little product differentiation do you think students are going to be loyal to the brand? The only difference in terms of products at the end of the day is the logo printed on the piece of paper that signifies their degree. You will never get people to be loyal to your logo.

Tip 5: Start with your Own People

Universities need to stop fooling themselves that they are a seperate entity in the broader labour market. You cannot bemoan the change in labour conditions and the fact graduates face an uncertain employment future when you are part of that problem!

Universities are still running under the assumption that they are employing labour, and a labour based business can simply improve their efficiencies by outsourcing to a cheaper labour market. Labour in this sense is a simplified concept, yes “labour” is required for the university to function but that term doesn’t reflect what most people within the organisation actually do. What they do is deal with people and information and to do this they required understanding, and understanding requires the development of knowledge. So what our people do looks less like labour and more like knowledge. There is a key difference between knowledge and labour – labour has a static value, but knowledge can grow and change. Knowledge can develop and change organically, labour can’t. The casualisation of university staff treats knowledge as static, robbing it of its very essence in order to make it fit nicely onto someone’s spreadsheet.

Universities have to start changing their own practices. There is a revolution needed in terms of knowledge work. It shouldn’t take the equivalent of Black Lung or mesothelioma in order for you to realise the working conditions in universities are unsustainable. You shouldn’t need suicides to remind you of the strain people are under.

You could have loyalty, but you need something worth being loyal to, and that is your staff and the experience they provide your students and your institution. Rethink what your staff provide you, engage them before engaging a consultant. The thing about knowledge is that if you invest in it, it grows and increases in value. If you have more knowledgable staff, if you treat them with respect and assist their growth then your institution grows in value you too. That’s worthy of loyalty.

The Rise of Innovationism

Over the past few years I’ve witnessed the rise of a new kind of fanaticism, a new ideology that has taken hold within the tech industry and has begun to seep into other industries, sectors and government as technology increasingly important role. It defines itself through an undying and unquestioning devotion to the concept of innovation. It has reached a level in many areas where it has become more that just a function of a business, but an ideology – an ism.

Innovationism.

Innovationism looks past the history of failed innovations, incremental improvements and plain old luck, to cherry pick a creation story that exists entirely of lightbulb moments and messianic inventors and prophets. It is the new manifestation of the intelligent design story. The individuals involved come complete with omnipotent powers of insight, but there’s a wilful ignorance of their human failings and the simple fact that for every success there was a score of failures. Pointing this out to a devotee of Innovationism is tantamount to heresy and is met with howls of derision and abuse from the bro culture that regards TechCrunch as the Holy Book. It is through the lens of religion, and its side kick of fanaticism, that we can finally gain an understanding of what is going on within the Church of Silicon Valley.

The Kodak Moment

The story of Kodak’s failure to recognise and reposition it’s film business in response to emerging digital technology is legendary. Mythical even. The Kodak story is how we’ve been sold the concept of “disruptive innovation” and how innovation itself is justified. It helps transform it from a buzz word into an ideology. This Innovationism uses the Kodak story as a way of simplifying a complex business and economic environment with 20/20 hindsight into a simple message – Innovate or Die.

I See History

When I look at the Kodak story I see history. An environment and time made into an artefact that we can dissect and make sense of. History is how we can move forward, but it’s equally true that it’s why we stay rooted to the spot, doomed to repeat events again and again. What allows us to move forward isn’t history itself, but recognising the moments and conditions of inflection – learning and identifying when and what to change – and providing an alternative at the right time. These three things (recognition, alternative and timing) need to be done in concert in order to affect change. This is why history so often repeats – we can’t coordinate those required actions.

Innovationism bypasses that logic. It doesn’t seek to know or understand, it seeks only to innovate. Innovation is the means and the end. By their logic we must innovate or die, so that we can innovate and die. By dying we can live forever. Those that seek innovation are doomed to repeat history simply because they are not on a path to change it. Intersect it, maybe, but change it, no.

The lesson from the Kodak story is not the power of disruptive innovation, nor is it the inevitability of technology to swallow up a business. The lesson lies in being able to recognise the points of inflection that could have changed the outcome. An understanding of the environment and conditions that led to key decisions being made.

Ideological Distortion

We are dealing with an ideology that has distorted the function of innovation. That has bastardised it to suit the needs of it’s masters and support their world views, baked in biases and dangerous beliefs. It reinforces their privilege and distorted view of the world that needs another app or phone update rather than address the climate catastrophe their products are contributing to.

Innovation on it’s own is not the problem – it’s this particular manifestation. The move from a function that helps to facilitate change into an ideology. It has bought with it a destructive nature that is having a massive effect on peoples lives. From Uber drivers through to Facebook’s new army of content moderators – lives are being profoundly affected by those loyal to the dogma. And like those in power in other areas before them – the church, the aristocracy, the politburo – they remain unaffected. They benefit greatly from the adherence and growth of this ideology. It’s what funds the billions of dollars into the accounts of Bezos and Gates before him. It’s what widens the gap between rich and poor, divides cities and classes and people into ever smaller marginalised groups.

History doesn’t need to repeat. We have been here before. The church, the state, the aristocracy. All have risen, but all have fallen too. It’s becoming easy to recognise the problem. The time is right for change. We just need an alternative. It might be time to innovate.

No Work …. till Next Year

This blog has been neglected a bit this year. The silence has felt deafening on this end – there’s been plenty to write about, lots has been going on in life, but finding words and being able to talk things openly have challenged my expression. This site has been a place where I have shared a lot, and I often feel that it’s a disservice when it’s left idle.

Work has been challenging. My job has changed quite a bit over the last few years, and in the last year has been quite challenging. There’s been significant movement within my division, and that looks set to continue with a review completed and a restructure on the cards. That’s all led to a feeling of disillusionment and deep questioning of what I’m doing.

I’m lucky enough to have been at the university for 11 years now. It means I’ve been here long enough to understand the machinations of the place, and I’ve been here long enough to unlock long service leave.

So that’s me for the rest of the year – I’m on leave. No more work till 2019!

I’ve got enough time up my sleeve to actually go and do that thinking, to work out what I want to do next. I’m not sure about the university, or the sector as a whole. I don’t know what it is I should be doing and spending my time. But I’ve at least got an opportunity to go away and have a think about it.

Because work is not life, and in general life is good.

We’re a happy family and enjoy being together. I’ve found more interesting avenues outside of work – setting up a startup and currently looking for ways to fund it – has engaged my creativity and challenged me to do new things and push myself. I would never have got up on a stage in front of 300 people and pitched, or be interviewed on the radio. I feel I’ve got a great professional network going in EdTech – I’ve managed to find the honest, compassionate and engaging people in that space and ways to stay connected with them. I have a lot to be happy and grateful for – and work has helped create that for me. I’m glad to be back in our lovely home and in this great regional community.

It’s time to think about what comes next!

PS – Please get in touch about any projects or work that you think might be of interest. I’d love to here about what’s happening in my network, opportunities that I’d never have thought about or considered.

Some Online Learning Truths

I haven’t written here for ages, but there have been plenty of things of late that I’ve wanted to engage with. Instead of that deep engagement in posting my (Twitter friendly) equivalent of me yelling stuff out of a car window as I pass by at the speed of life:

  1. Online courses don’t need to be massive. You can have a viable class with 15-20 people. In fact the bigger the course the less of a “class” it feels.
  2. If you keep the numbers small you can dedicate more time to more students/teacher interactions. Both will feel more nourished and engaged.
  3. You don’t need to have a quiz at the end of a topic. Have a conversation instead. Don’t discount informal assessment.
  4. A course doesn’t have to be content driven. Sometimes conversation and the generation of ideas and context are more suited and more beneficial to learning. Could you run your course with zero materials?
  5. You don’t need a course to learn. Guess what!? You can just search for stuff online these days and learn by yourself! Education providers don’t have a monopoly any more. In fact formal education – you’re more difficult to engage with than ever before.
  6. Making stuff that’s meaningful is a better tool for assessment than any exam or essay.
  7. Essays are an abstraction of writing for purpose & communicating an idea. An essay is a format, a style – and for this it fails to do its job. Why? Because in essence you’re actively hiding an idea under a ton of formatting.
  8. Word count is not a signal of proficiency. Challenge the learning by forcing a more succinct statement. A tweet, a 5 minute presentation.
  9. Text is not the only way to assess. It would be faster to mark 10 x 5 minute presentation than 10 x 3000 word essays. But from a students perspective, and in the assessment of learning – just as much time/effort is required – it’s not a lesser format.
  10. Don’t forget, there are a myriad of tools and tech out there that enable conversation and dialogue. The forum can be replaced. The forum often should be replaced. Get your students to talk to each other.
  11. Different LMSs are just like Coke vs Pepsi – neither is really good for you, they have no nutritional value and you should probably just have water. We need to Think beyond the LMS.

Earn or Learn, Eat or Read

Reason students leave school: time and money. For many it’s earn or learn, eat or read… today’s system is not designed for today’s students. #asugsv2018 https://twitter.com/DesieLiz/status/986281713453056000/photo/1

This tweet hit my timeline this morning as I sipped my coffee. It stuck in my craw.

The debate around the education system doesn’t seem particularly fruitful, instead it tends to centre on apportioning blame for one shortcoming or another. Education is a complex beast, mainly because it spans civic, private, social, public and increasingly, corporate realms. It involves economic, political and financial aspects at both macro and micro levels. So many spheres with so points of interaction and intersection that it is a tangled mess. But that’s what it is. No amount of streamlining, efficiency dividends, restructures or regulation will change that. Educations place in our society is as a nexus.

However, we cannot avoid the fact that the situation described in that tweet is real, students are increasingly faced with the choice to earn or learn, eat or read. And to rub salt into the wound, they are paying to do so!

But it’s this next bit that rubs me the wrong way – “today’s system is not designed for today’s students” – because I don’t think this is a problem that’s systemic within Education. Yes education has problems that contribute to this situation, but I think it’s society itself is the problem. The society that we live in is increasingly not designed for its citizens, in fact it’s becoming It’s more and more hostile to vast swathes of people, in particular the younger generation.

I’m not sure that the Education System is capable of addressing the kinds of problems that are on table. I think we’ve got a society whose value system has gone awry, and what’s happening in education is symptomatic of that.

We are in a state where we are asking to student to pay for the privilege of choosing to earn or learn, eat or read. Apparently we can’t afford to educate people any more, while at the same time we hand over billions in corporate welfare and tax breaks. We can’t afford to feed or house people any but we can give away our natural resources and sabotage our land and water.

Education can’t and won’t fix that. Education isn’t the solution here. It might even be part of the problem as the system seeks to maintain relevance and prestige by changing the concept of education to fit the ‘work ready’ mantra. We’ve shifted the costs and the burden of being a citizen onto the next generation to the point where they have to choose whether they eat or read!