Grand Challenges at the CETIS 2008 Conference

On the 25th of November I facilitated a session entitled “Grand Challenges in HE and FE”. The first half of the session was given over to a structured activity, “Future Backwards”. This activity, which worked well except that the groups should have been a bit smaller than 6, and the products created by the groups are available on the CETIS wiki. The second half of the session was devoted to free discussion. What follows is my account of the broad flow of the discussion, bringing out stated or implied challenges, “grand” or otherwise. It is unclear what effect the Future Backwards process had on the discussion but this process does dwell on the key events that influenced the current state and imagined future unreasonably bad and good states and the discussion often came back to questions of “how we got here” and the challenges of avoiding the problems our path to here seems to have been beset with.

I will use “participant” to refer to someone who participated in the discussion. Audio files for a recording of the discussion are also available on the CETIS wiki.

One non-specific challenge was identified as how to get to a point where decision-makers had well-grounded strategic understanding. In its various aspects, the current state of affairs seemed to have been influenced by reactivity, pulls in different directions and “tail steering”. We should not accept this for the future. One participant suggested that no-one really knew whether universities were cities or factories, references back to Andrew Feenberg’s keynote. Feenberg contrasted an industrially-inspired view of education with a “place of cosmopolitan interactions [the city] and enhanced communication┬ŽIt is not dedicated to the rigid reproductions of the same, the ‘one best way’, but to the flexible testing of possibilities and the development of the new- not hierarchical control but unplanned horizontal contacts; not simplification and standardization but variety and growth of the capabilities required to live in a more complex world.” (Transforming Technology, 2002). A different dimension of strategic understanding relates specifically to technology: what can it do, what can it not do and what could it do (sometimes unanticipated and often unintended consequences).

An specific example of lack of strategic understanding of technology was cited as the implementation, effectively a realisation of the concept, of the VLE. Participants contended that the implementation of VLEs had largely not been to serve an institutional strategic purpose but, driven by a supply of funds made available by a government that believed IT had benefits, more because that is what everyone was doing. There is something similar here to the “no-one got sacked for buying IBM” adage.

A great danger was perceived, arising from the consequences of society’s understanding of education. If what society is prepared to give is support for “here is the content, off you go, its up to you..” and the richer experience with social and tutorial input is reserved for those that can pay, what future for the country? The non-specific challenge is how to avoid going down this path and the fear was that we do not have the strategies to guide us. One specific challange was suggested: to direct people’s attention to what learning should be about by developing good communication tools embodying our best knowledge of how people learn. One participant noted that it was curious that a change of technology from books to ICT seems to have affected people’s judgement on the limitations of the value of “content”.

The media was criticised as comprising an obstacle to progress on this non-specific challenge. From a realistic perspective, we cannot expect the media to work with more than stories. Stories attract people. Stories spread. The voice of the expert is lost until it plays a part in the hindsight of a story. Our naive experience of education as learners couples with a flawed, shallow and unreflective portrayal by the media. The media could have a really important role to play but no participant presented a strategy to effect the change.

Three specific challenges were outlined, challenges relating to JISC and CETIS’s innovation remit but not entailing the development of specific technology. The questions to be asked are:

  1. what are the principles for implementing a technology to achieve results (learning results, but defining the measures is implicitly part of the challenge too)?
  2. how should JISC use return on investment (again, defining this is part of the challenge) to guide the programmes it delivers in the pursuit of “innovation”?
  3. what are the factors for successful use of technology?

In summary, the participants in the Grand Challenges session seemed to feel that they had a realistic view on the education and technology landscape are were generally rather dissatisfied with where we are now. Strategic understanding is key.
Many specific points have been missed from the above account, generally when they referred back to an idea mentioned earlier in the discussion. I believe I have conveyed the general flavour above. If you want more, listen to the recordings (page with links).

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