Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Education needs to be about learning, not about teaching

As usual the blog post is in the air and, not that unusually so am I as I write this. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and maybe it’s because I’m back working in and around education but I have noticed a drift in the last few months towards a more philosophical me when it comes to blogging - I’m as passionate as ever about learning, but sometimes it seems that the things we face in the learning world are actually issues stretching beyond learning.  Of course, it may be that actually the converse is true and it’s learning that stretches beyond what we normally associate with learning - it certainly goes well beyond education and that’s something really important to remember :)

Anyway, enough of the preamble.  On my way to the nation’s capital (Wellington aye) and I’ve come up with a plan to change the face of education.  Now education is inherently full of very smart people, but it still seems grounded in the ideas of a teacher and students - smart people and those wishing to learn; those with the knowledge and those needing it.  Bunkum.  That model of learning is gone gone gone and needs to stay gone.  Learning is a journey that gets shaped by those around us.  Think about your own school days and what you learnt whilst you were there.  Now answer this; did you learn everything you needed directly from your teachers?  Or further, did they teach you everything about life?  About bulling?  About how society works?  About popularity?  About love?  About what success was and what it wasn’t?  How much of your subject-based education do you really use now?

Truth is, we desperately need to change our model of trying to teach or educate people in the way we’ve been doing.  Now I’m in adult education and not the education of children, but I have to say in so many ways teaching children seems to be ahead of teaching adults.  Take the environments.  A university has lecture theatres where masses sit patiently (and some even attentively) to the master, a polytechnic or college has a hybrid of lectures and classrooms (even to this day predominantly with desks facing the ‘front’), secondary schools tend to be more grouped and primary education has bright inspiring colours, small groups and a range of different activities going on.  Now we can convince ourselves that it’s about making it interesting for young children and that they have short attention spans and like lots of stimulus, but I find it hard to distinguish that from most adults, self included.  Furthermore a primary school teacher takes the lead across all the subjects a young student studies.  The school of thought (if you’ll excuse the pun) is that this is because they don’t need to be a very deep area in any one subject to be able to teach a wide-range of subjects at a low level; but actually again this model has some massive advantages when we start to apply it in the modern learning world.  Firstly they really know the children in their class and, as a consequence, the children become more attached to their teacher too.  The primary teacher naturally forms more of a guide bond than a subject matter expert - the children are learning so many things and the teacher is their trusted guide as they discover.

Let’s take primary principles and apply to higher education.  Is that my idea?  Yes and no.  I do think there’s lots to learn from the environment in particular, but also the guide and journey type model, but I think we need to recognise that adults do require some different stimuli to children.  No, my idea definitely involves those ‘modern learning environments’ that stimulate learning; they should have and project a kind of energy (yes, colourful, appealing, interesting), allow for group works of different size and shape, supported by technology; multi-user multi-display type screens all over the place (not just one big one at the front), very high quality ultra-fast wireless internet and soft furnishings (this one’s about noise).  But the environment of a successful learning place is not just about the physical environment, it’s also about the people.  Let’s remove all the teachers.  Let’s stop teaching altogether.  Let’s start learning, just at different levels.

The Un-university - and since un-un means we drop the un, I give you the Versity.  The versity (my computer wants to make that veracity!) doesn’t have a single teacher or lecturer in it.  It’s a fantastic environment for learning where people learn at a variety of levels they chose and beyond the services infrastructure (those who support the learning environment) it doesn’t have any academic staff.  The staff that are there are absolutely not teachers.  They are either studying and continuing to learn themselves, or they are there to maintain and improve the environment.  Sounds like chaos eh?  A whole bunch of students rock up one day in this big learning area (let’s call it a learning commons as that’s one of the buzz-words around today) and try and sort out what they’re going to study and how.  Who’s in charge?  Who sorts out the curriculum?  Which qualifications are they working towards? What can they possibly get out of it?

Daft idea you say, but who’s ever been to an un-conference?  Why would a bunch of industry professionals get together in one big room without an agenda or speakers?  But if any of you have been to one, you’ll know that the likely learning in an un-conference is far higher than what you learn by watching one or two good keynotes and some other (and often rather poor) presentations.  In fact when I attend conferences, I enjoy the back-channels and the discussions that others have about what they’ve seen and experienced far more than the presentations (I’ve been known to skip a fair few of these too).  The versity and the unconference have their learning roots from the same place - it’s social learning; the ability to learn from others that we choose rather than those that are forced upon us.

Let’s take social learning to that extra level.  In the learning technology world, Twitter is recognised as the leading tool for learning, yet there are no teachers on Twitter (yes yes, I know some people on Twitter also happen to be teachers, but you know what I mean, there are no ‘classes’).  All Twitter does is connect people and get out of the way.  The versity is the same.

The devil will be in the detail I’m sure, you’ll need advisors (hey that’s my team!) that you go to (not that tell you what you can and can’t study, but that can show you benefits and pathways that you choose), you’ll need to work out a financial model - how to pay for using the facilities (or not), how to pay for qualifications and I’m sure another one of those smarter than me people can work that out.  Essentially think of the versity as the mind gym.  You pay your gym fees to be able to use the facility.  If you want a specific ‘grading’ then there’s a fee for it.  If you want a personal trainer you can hire one, but you could just organise a group session yourself if that worked for you - bring your friends.  Great thing would be that we could radically reduce fees for students this way and potentially bring adult learning back to the masses too.

So there it is, the daftest idea to reform education you ever heard of… or maybe just the next logical step.  Throw me your opinion, tell me I’m wrong or that I’m just misunderstood :) 

Friday, 16 October 2015

Learning Technology Influencers and Contributors

I've got some homework from my Working Out Loud (WOL) circle this week around people I admire and why.  In doing this exercise it's made me think a little about what we do and how for many people making their mark on the world - being famous maybe or inventing something or being a 'thought leader' or any of those modern phrases that means people regard you as a top expert in your field.  I've often tried to be this myself, but is this the way to have the biggest effect on learning (let alone life)? Are we almost trying to hard?

I'll get back to that. For now let me talk about who has been part of my learning and why.

It started with my parents who, like most of you I suspect, shaped my early learning and continue to shape my life to this day.  My parents were the biggest influence in my formative years of course - very strong moral background and that's had a profound effect on me and my life. If I'm honest I don't see the world in the same black and white way; but without that early influence I don't know if I would have had the same perspectives or abilities to see things so differently.

My family now are really key to my thinking and the one I admire the most is my wife Kim. The biggest thing Kim has taught me and helped me to improve is empathy and how to really take on how other people feel and I've used this more and more over the last few years. I really admire how she seamlessly switches to someone else's perspective and is able to use that to adjust her behaviours - if I could be half as good at that as her I'd be doing fantastic.

Professionally my biggest influencer was my old head of department when I first started teaching - a gentleman by the name of Paul Unstead who was a giant among men (even though he wasn't that tall). Just an amazing leadership style that empowered, showed courage and empathy as well as someone you could truly look up to. Paul was my mentor through until he died a few years back and I've not filled that role and I'm not sure I ever will...

There are people that don't have to have such a big impact as those above but whom I admire nonetheless.  I'm a free-thinker (or at least that's how I like to think of myself and what I aspire to be) so I like those that challenge what they see and don't just repeat on what others have said without questioning or looking deeper in to it. In this space I love the work that Richard Branson does. I don't know him on any level beyond his public persona, but someone committed to shaking up a lot of pre-conceptions and one of the very few 'famous' people I follow.

My learning influencers tend to come from the learning technologies world; I see a few faces on Twitter and the rounds that I like because of their perspectives and the shape they have on mine.  These include Nick Leffler who has a nicely warped sense of humour and a fun style, Helen Blunden who is razor sharp with a great skill set but again very human, Michelle Ockers who always questions and again has great knowledge, Ryan Tracey who has a wealth of knowledge but great intellectual humility and always willing to listen to a different (yes, often mine) perspective, Con Sotidis because he understands it's about people first and foremost, and Bruno Winck who I frequently and very amiably disagree with but again likes a different perspective. That's not the end of the list, in fact I could go on and on and throw out my lists on Twitter with some other key people I admire, but it's a good start. If you search and follow these people on Twitter you'll be better off for it and I'm sorry for the others I should have mentioned!

So that's my homework, but it takes me back to my original thought. Everyone knows who first came up with the idea of gravity.  We know where the origin of quantum mechanics came from and who invented flight and even the computer. Once upon a time it seemed that this was reaching the pinnacle; to be the recognised inventor or creator; but I think in the age of social media and learning this concept is becoming less and less likely. Who invented the internet? Who made the leap from web to web 2.0? 3.0? It won't be one people, it will be a collective so it's key that to move things forward in the future we can't and won't be out there on our own taking forward the next generation of ideas.  We'll do it together... and if that's not cool, I don't know what is.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Will Twitter continue to be the number one learning tool?

I probably blew the punchline with the title, but if you didn't know it already Twitter is rated the number one tool for learning every year and 2015 is no different.  Jane Hart compiles this list for the Centre for Learning Performance Technologies in the UK based on worldwide research  This is great for us in the modern learning world as Twitter is clearly a tool that puts the individual at the heart and control of their own learning.  Given the history of dominance of Twitter, why question its position at the top of the charts?

1 - Twitter is considering becoming less micro.  If you haven't heard one thing that the gurus of the system are considering is upping the 140 characters that currently limit and effectively define micro-blogging.  There are talks of somewhere between another 10 characters (hardly a monumental shift and unlikely to largely change the world) and a complete re-think ending up with media-rich unlimited characters.  Now sure there's ways around this now and you could argue that more space creates huge opportunities... but then does Twitter just become Linked-In or suddenly a Facebook rival rather than complimentary service?  What's more risky is that it becomes an even greater marketing opportunity.  The great thing about 140 characters is that anything more has to be a link and as an individual I get to choose if I click, follow through or go back through the chain.  An unlimited Twitter to me flips the learning model back to a 'teacher' led drive with more pushing of content and less pull.  It could be a game changer with a huge negative step for learning.

2 - Video is on the rise.  But is it?  If you're observant you'll have noticed that the number two learning tool on the list is You Tube.  That follows if you think about it, if you need anything beyond a short sharp hit or links that Twitter offers you tend to have the option of a media-rich alternative in You Tube.  The thing I like best is that the two have a nice handoff at the moment so you can get informed on Twitter and the links take you to further media - great for self-directed learning.  Twitter launched Periscope earlier this year as a streaming service from Twitter.  But actually the service is a compliment like You Tube rather than direct competition.

3 - Multimedia synchronous interactive tools are going to take over.  I'm not convinced of this one either, but there may be a market share of Twitter users that drift to Blab and the like where they talk and share video rather than type.  Whilst I agree there's a need for the video conferencing type tools both in business and education, there's a beauty in the simplicity of Twitter that keeps it number one.  I love being in a Twitter chat and having the option to surf the net, research and tune in and out as the chat progresses - even forming sub-chats and following some interesting rabbit holes, these are things that are difficult to do in a video conference.  I very much see Twitter in the same vein as tools like SMS or text-messaging - they have their place and although the technology may not be new, it works and for now there's nothing better in the simplicity stakes.

4 - Something new.  There you have it, looking deep into my crystal ball I can conclude that there may be something new coming that will upend the king of learning in the social world. Of course I have no idea what it is or anything about it, but I think there's always space for an innovation that kills off the supreme being (think dinosaurs and video recorders).  What I think may be the new wave is a new input device and I think it may be something to do with wearable technology and our slant towards being on the move.  What if you could 'think' to type or communicate a full type vocabulary without speaking or needing a keyboard.  Not sure, I maybe spinning off here a little, but there will be a new challenger and time will tell if it has what it takes to take the title.

In the meantime Twitter is still an awesome tool for learning so tweet on.  For those wondering Google holds the three and four spot and even a Microsoft product rocks in at 5 - although we may need to re-define learning if we have to resort to Powerpoint to save us :)