Monday, 11 October 2010

The Sustainable University

Does the impact of mobiles and mobility on our society mean that the education system, especially the institutions of formal learning, need to make tactical, technical changes and reforms in order to be sustainable, ask whether business-as-usual is still possible. Or do these changes suggest that the education system is somehow broken, no longer fit-for-purpose and unsustainable? Or perhaps some more complex and fragmented answer lies between these extremes?

The personal, cultural and social aspects of the impact of mobiles on the education system hinge on the essential difference between desktop technologies and mobile technologies, a difference that means we can ignore the former but not the latter. Interacting with a desktop computer takes place in a bubble, in dedicated times and places where the learner has their back to the world for a substantial and probably premeditated episode. Interacting with a mobile is different and woven into all the times and places of people’s lives.

Mobiles have created simultaneity of place, the juxtaposition of physical space and multiple virtual spaces full of conversational interactions, where identity, ideas, images and information are generated, shared, discussed and transformed. This changes learners' sense of time, space, place and location, their affiliations and loyalties to institutions, groups and communities, the ways in which they relate to other individuals and to groups, to learning, knowing and understanding, their sense of their identity, and their ethics, that is their sense of what is right, what is acceptable and what is appropriate. The literature of mobilities research documents and analyses these changes but fails to see their significance for formal education. The literature of mobile learning research highlights disruption and mobiles but usually fails to unpack the deeper significance.

Desktop technologies can be ignored but not mobile technologies; desktop technologies operate in their own small world, mobile technologies operate in the world. Desktop technologies are tied to buildings, mobile technologies to people. Mobiles demolish the need to tie particular activities to particular places or particular times. They reconfigure relationships between public and private spaces, and the ways in which these relationships are penetrated by virtual spaces. Virtual communities and discussions were previously mediated by static networked computers in dedicated times, places and spaces. Now, mobiles propel these communities and discussions into physical public and private spaces, forcing changes and adjustments to all three as we learn to manage more fluid contexts. Mobiles also shift agency and ownership from institutions to people and challenge the role of formal institutions as gatekeepers and custodians of society's knowledge, education and learning. These changes are clearly challenging the legitimacy and credibility of formal institutions, rooted in fixed times, places, relationships, configurations and roles

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Mobiles, Learning, Africa, Development

There is much activity, much discussion and much interest in the capacity of mobile devices to deliver, support and enhance learning for the disenfranchised, the disadvantaged and the developing communities and regions of the world. Much of this discussion, interest and activity is however uncritical, simplistic and poorly synthesised.
In general the argument for using mobile phones or other mobile devices to address educational disadvantage is straightforward: their ownership and acceptance are near-universal and cut across most notions of ‘digital divides’; their use is based around robust sustainable business models; they are, unlike other ICTs, found at the BOP amongst the next billion subscribers; they deliver information, ideas and, increasingly, images.
Research is needed now because of the rapidly increasing ownership of more powerful handsets in the developing world, the decreasing real costs of this hardware and connectivity, the increasing coverage of higher specification networks in these regions and the increasing activity of corporates representing publishing, handsets, services and infrastructure looking for sustainable business models based on the educational use of mobile devices in developing regions. This represents an opportunity to intervene, to promote and to guide this activity in order that worthwhile educational experiences and opportunities become more widely and more equitably distributed.
Research is also needed now because various communities, necessary actors in facilitating successful learning using mobile devices and technologies, each come with considerable potential but often inappropriate contributions, partial understandings and flawed assumptions:
i. Mobile learning is an emerging mature global research, policy and practitioner community that has exploited mobile devices to extend the reach of learning and of educational opportunities, and has developed applications and formats that enhance and extend the concepts of learning and education. The projects and pilots of the mobile learning community now impact on policy and provision in many parts of the developed world thanks to judicious advocacy and credible evidence. The achievements of the mobile learning community are not characterised specifically by any ‘developing’/’developed’ divide but are not widely known or understood in the developing regions.
ii. The m4d (and larger ICTD) community of researchers, activists and practitioners have currently generally only addressed learning and education as ‘service delivery’, using mobile technologies to smooth the operations of educational institutions, and have not engaged significantly with education processes or practices.
iii. Mobile learning, insofar as it takes place in Africa, has been seen as part of e-learning in Africa and as part of the rhetoric of ‘catching-up’ and ‘leap-frogging’. The technologies of e-learning necessarily but perhaps implicitly embody ideas and practices of teaching and learning native to America or Western Europe. Furthermore the model for procuring and deploying and supporting ICT for education is no longer appropriate, being based on institutional provision rather than learner provision.
iv. The pace at which mobile devices and technologies are brought to market and more importantly are exploited, domesticated and appropriated leads to a very fragmented understanding of their affordances and of the nature and significance of any medium-term trends.
v. Mobile devices increasingly allow users to generate, share and discuss ideas, images and information, specific to them, their locations and their own physical or virtual communities, in effect to determine and manage their own learning and knowledge. This problematises the role, status and credibility of formal education and its institutions but also impacts and perhaps threatens learners’ indigenous cultures, languages and social structures, perhaps rooted in stable hierarchies and a more oral tradition.
Areas to be explored must include the balance between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approaches, ‘progressive’ versus ‘traditional’ values in education, the relationships between mobile learning, lifelong learning, distance education and classroom teaching, the ethical and cultural aspects of educational interventions and the boundaries and differences between various research communities and their methodologies for example between participative design and anthropology.

Friday, 23 April 2010

random thoughts on 'development' and e-learning

• African universities, professionals, researchers, educators (and maybe ICTD in general) etc are not exposed to the most exciting, most innovative work in European e-learning (ideas, concepts, communities and people, not just gadgets, systems and technologies) including mobile learning (and vice versa)
• The m4d (mobile-for-development) community seems preoccupied with ‘service delivery’ / with infrastructural & organisational solutions - education is not just another service
• there is a plethora of not-for-profits/community activists in this space esp. South Africa
• Methodologies (and ethics, epistemology) do not travel well; they are genuine meaningful challenges
• Confusion and overlap of research, development, consultancy, philanthropy, capacity building etc
• Big awareness of funding/financial possibilities (corporates conscious of the 'next billion subscribers' / consultants & researchers mining donor and development funds) esp. in South Africa
• There are considerable discrepancies between informal/community expectations about technology, education and those formal expectations within institutions, funders/donors
• Mobiles don't merely replicate existing 'digital divides' eg North/South, gender, age
• In Africa, the relationships between projects, evidence, sustainability, private sector, equity, policy, governance are variable and weak
• African universities, professionals, researchers, educators etc are however exposed to big business selling products that are usually wholly inappropriate (technically, infrastructurally, culturally, financially and pedagogically)
• Moreover these products and their sales pitch resonate with uncritical ideas of ‘leap-frogging’ within Africa itself amongst some officials in ministries and universities; e-learning in Africa is too often conceptualised as a deficit to be redressed
• The rhetoric of ‘catching-up’ is drowning out any discussion of ‘appropriate’.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Learning with ‘Appropriate’ Technology in Africa: PC Labs or Mobile Phones

It is important and urgent to debate and discuss the issue of ‘development’ in relation to e-learning and the issue of 'appropriate' technology in relation to e-learning, and especially to debate and discuss these issues in relation to each other.
One specific reason for this debate and discussion is that we need much greater clarity about the perceived tension between those e-learning strategies based on near-universal ownership of mobile devices amongst potential learners on the one hand and those e-learning strategies based expensive large-scale installations of static institutional networked desktop computers on the other. This discussion is also important because it is also a discussion about the balance between the individual and the institution, the community and the corporate, the bottom-up and the top-down and it is vitally important to the issue of sustainability.
There are of course many competing and confused ideas about what could constitute 'appropriate' learning technologies and systems for Africa, and about what would be the ‘appropriate’ forms of e-learning in Africa. There are also many competing and confused ideas about ‘development’ and much emotive rhetoric about ‘catching up’ and ‘leap-frogging’. This contribution aims to discuss these but, of course, any discussion of education, and any discussion of education in Africa is always in danger of simplifying Africa or simplifying education or both.
Firstly, the idea of a technology system, especially a socio-technical system such as an e-learning technology system, is complex and many definitions of systems and technologies emphasise their human and social components, alongside the technical and tangible components, and also emphasise how understanding or designing a technological system crucially depends on identifying its purpose and the nature of its interactions with its environment. With anything other than the simplest system, these are complicated, unclear and often contested.
Secondly, Africa is composed of widely different countries and cultures; many of the institutions and structures of formal education in Africa are still strongly influenced by the legacy of contact, most likely colonisation, with different European countries each with its own different educational traditions. This is apparent in ideas about instruction, curricula, assessment, organisation and management and may cut across national boundaries. These institutions and structures may however now be influenced by the growing globalisation of educational thinking and by the pressure of global educational technology developers and vendors. Furthermore, as in countries in other continents, the institutions and structures of education may however not be sympathetic to the practices of community and to the ideas of informal learning in the different local cultures across Africa, or even conducted in the same languages. There can sometimes also be vagueness in defining in practical terms the ‘African-ness’ that ‘appropriate’ technologies and systems are supposed to be addressing: is it sparsity, rurality and distance? Is it infrastructure, capacity and organisation? Is it national, cultural and linguistic diversity? Or is it something else? There is always a risk of making superficial generalisations but there is always a practical need to learn what can be transferred or replicated too, and a need to formulate policy.
Thirdly, education systems and institutions have seldom developed their own sustainable, scalable technologies anywhere in the world. It is unlikely that any parts of Africa will be any different. Instead, education systems have appropriated or co-opt technologies, that is, they have used technologies for purposes for which those technologies were not intended or designed or sold. There are a variety of reasons for this but one must be perceptions amongst vendors and developers that education is only a small market compared to commercial and industrial markets. Nevertheless some technologies have been developed for purely educational markets – VLEs and e-portfolios are the obvious ones currently.
Education systems in most parts of the world have appropriated the desktop computers and the software systems designed for the American and European corporate markets. Financial constraints make this practice virtually essential but this has clearly been problematic for the development of ‘appropriate’ educational technologies anywhere in the world. This is perhaps more problematic for education systems in the 'developing' regions of the world since they are doubly distant from the original intended designs. Dedicated educational hardware is practically non-existent and dedicated educational software is miniscule compared to the volume of commercial and industrial software; furthermore the vast majority of this dedicated educational software originates outside the world’s developing regions so its ‘appropriate-ness’ is suspect too.
Fourthly, looking at ‘appropriate’ technologies from outside Africa raises the issues of designing for ‘appropriate-ness’ rather than procuring it. Participative design and user-centred design both seem at first sight to be the tools for developing ‘appropriate’ local or indigenous technologies. However community preferences may differ from the preferences of trained or professional educators and they may also differ from the ideas of ‘progressive’ developers and theorists from the ‘developed’ regions. Furthermore, raising the issue of design implicitly raises the issue of evaluation, or perhaps M&E in an African or ‘development’ context. Evaluation methods must be aligned to design practices in order to feedback meaningfully into iterative design. And if we are concerned about sustainability, then the outputs of evaluation must be appropriate to the developer community and perhaps also to the policy and business communities in order to generate the type of evidence that will either change policy and thus secure public funding or establish a business case and thus encourage commercial activity.
Seeing sustainability at a national level in these terms is by no means easy because it probably implies the kind of 'big government' that would characterise the UK or Sweden but not the US or South Africa, the kind of 'big government' prepared to commission and then evaluate evidence and then change policy and allocate resources. In countries with 'small government', sustainable educational technology is in the hands of businesses or social enterprises, and the mechanisms to support and sustain initiatives are different and less obvious.
Fifthly, sustainability is also an organisational and a cultural issue. It is easy to see any discussion of educational technology in Africa in terms of physical challenges and physical deficits, to see the problem (or rather to define the problem) in terms of infrastructure, in terms for example of reliable mains electricity, broadband connectivity, secure clean buildings, modern computer hardware, up-to-date licenses and software installations. And this simple analysis suggests that once a range of these physical pre-conditions have been met, that successful e-learning will take place. We must however recognise that no technology is culturally neutral, either as it is originally designed or deployed or as it is subsequently appropriated. Every technology embodies an ideology. In the case of educational technology and of e-learning, the ideology is in part the implied pedagogy. So when institutions or countries procure and install a particular educational technology, they also install the ideology including the pedagogy that comes with it. Of course the technology and its ideology may not be aligned to their new learners or their institutions and culture. The misalignment could be at a number of levels. The educational technology may not be aligned its host institution and its ideas about teaching and learning, it may not be aligned to popular, informal or cultural expectations about learning (of course, the educational institutions may not be aligned to popular or informal expectations about what constitutes learning and how to learn either).
Another dimension to the discussion of sustainability and ‘appropriateness’ is the lifecycle of projects and innovations in e-learning in both the ‘developing’ and the ‘developed’ regions of the world. In most cases and in most places, these are small-scale and fixed-term; they are usually funded, staffed, implemented and evaluated in ways that keep them isolated from their host communities and host organisations and almost inevitably they fail to embed and endure; they are evidently ‘inappropriate’.
And lastly, to return to the issue of appropriation, of course people generally appropriate technologies anyway; the 'missed call' or the 'please call me' is the obvious example - the network operators and the handset vendors clearly did not set out to provide the world with free messaging. However there is a tension between those technologies appropriated by educational institutions, such as PCs, and those appropriated by the community, for example for informal mobile learning. Implicitly the idea of appropriation is linked to the idea of sustainability; those technologies appropriated by the community must evidently have some attributes of sustainability; those technologies appropriated by the educational institutions may not be sustainable.
Any attempt to analyse educational technologies in Africa may be simplistic. Our concern is to question whether the rhetoric of ‘catching up’ or ‘leap-frogging’ in e-learning is not taking place at the expense of a discussion about what is ‘appropriate’.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Mobile and Connected - the Challenges and the Implications

I continue to worry about the relationships between mobile technologies within education and mobile technologies outside in society. My latest formulation is for Eduserv, "We live in a society increasingly characterised by mobility and connectedness; our educational institutions are however still largely characterised by fixity and isolation, and perhaps by the risk of irrelevance.

Recent years have seen a growth and interest in mobile learning, in many countries of the world and in all sectors, universities included. At the same time, the acceptance and ownership of increasingly powerful mobile personal technologies has become widespread, nearly universal , in our societies. These two trends might seem supportive of each other and in some respects they are. In other respects, however, their relationship is more problematic.

This talk explores the impact of mobile technology on society and the phenomenon of mobile learning within our institutions, and the likely strategic implications and issues for UK universities."

Sunday, 28 February 2010

e-Learning - The Next Wave

Look beneath the perpetual choppiness of the e-learning seascape and discern deeper currents.

Large-scale e-learning in institutions can be conceptualised as the industrialisation of learning. I think that this is useful and provocative, and in particular will help institutions engage positively with the changing technical, social and economic environment.

We are near a point where the 'first generation of industrial learning' has delivered all it can and we see signs of an emergent 'second generation'.

The first generation was characterised by inflexible ‘Fordism’, the production line; it was driven by institutions, and it managed change from the top. The institutions acted as custodians and gatekeepers to learning and technology, especially for the disadvantaged, and they targeted mass markets, by ‘massification’ and ‘commodification’. Digital divides were simple and soluble.
The first generation was characterised by an emphasis on (the lack of) evidence for policy and for the deployment of technology in learning; increasingly now, technology has become the ubiquitous norm, digital divides are complex and counter-intuitive and the role of evidence is changed (or removed)!

We argue that we are now at the start of a second generation and need to adopt post-Fordist ideas, look at ‘flexible manufacturing' and use ‘mass customisation’ to reach the ‘long-tail’ of learners’ preferences and needs. This generation will be user-driven and institutions must respond to unmanaged pressure from outside. Increasingly, technology happens outside institutions, inside which students now claim to they are forced to 'power down’.

Technology was ‘other’, was a dumb conduit and a dumb container for learning; it merely ‘enhanced’ or ‘supported’ learning. Now technology is socially transformative; technology ‘is us’.

The first generation was Web1.0, the web as centralised broadcaster and students as readers; the second generation must be Web2.0, everyone writers and readers. In terms of ideology, social constructivism was the dominant espoused pedagogy, behaviourism probably the dominant enacted pedagogy. Education, psychology and computing were the foundations of e-learning. The second generation must develop new ideologies, perhaps ‘connectionism’ or ‘navigationism’ for the 'epistemological revolution'; e-learning must engage with sociology.