Product or Public Good?

I was delighted to be invited to speak about our Study of Online Learning our group authored for the HEFCE Task Force at this years ALT-C conference. I  focused on the issues that I felt arose from the long awaited report which is due to be published shortly.

Or view the talk in the ALT-C youTube channel

The vast majority of online distance offerings are postgraduate ‘professional’ courses. eg. Masters in Law, Medicine, Business, Engineering etc.

I made it clear in my presentation at ALT-C that I don’t see this as a problem in of itself. The institutions providing these courses have found that the online distance format works well for those in full-time employment and that these types of courses have a ready market. Setting up successful online distance programmes is challenging enough so it make sense to pick the low hanging fruit in terms of potential customers when developing new products.

Did that last sentence grate a bit? It does for me and not just because of the dubious grammar. As soon as we talk in terms of ‘customers’ and ‘product’ I get nervous. There seems to be something inherently at odds with the philosophy of higher education as I understand it when it is couched in economic terminology. This is then compounded by the apparent keenness of the government to involve private partners in the delivery of higher education programmes online with the possibility of giving some companies the right to award degrees directly.

ALT Proceedings
A fortifying cup of tea with some mini-chedders

I was at an amusing talk recently given by an American company who claimed that their “for-profit university was not preoccupied with money”. It’s very easy to sit in a university and poke fun at commercial educational providers, too easy in fact, especially as I’m quite happy to take my salary home each month. I haven’t done an MBA so I’m not an expert but I find it difficult to distinguish the financial approaches of public and private sector bodies sometimes. Universities are diverse businesses and have many money-making activities some of which are funded by the government and some which are straight commercial ventures. I believe that a simplistic argument around ‘for-profit’ and ‘not for-profit’ masks the real issue which in the case of online distance learning is to do with diversity.

Almost every institution in this field whether a university or a big corporate is providing an extremely narrow curriculum because certain courses have a better Return on Investment than others. The problem is not what we are providing online but what we are neglecting to provide. Where are the humanities and liberal arts? Where are the foundation and undergraduate degrees? There are a few examples of these (I cited The Sheffield College) but certainly not enough to reflect the character of our face-to-face universities.

The reason for this lack of diversity in both curriculum and academic levels is because non-STEM, non-Business, non-Postgrad courses have a less reliable income stream. It’s expensive to kick start an online programme. It’s a lot less expensive than building a lecture theatre or a library but because it’s a ‘new’ mode of delivery it’s assessed outside the economic machinery embedded in our institutions and has to be seen to pay-for-itself. Here is where the financial challenges bite. At ALT-C I made the statement that “Universities should enrich society not make society rich”. I admit that this becomes increasingly difficult when money is scarce but I feel that it’s important that we retain those aspects of our activity which work towards the public good. A public good which is not predicated on wealth and material growth but on wellbeing, one which equips individuals to be more than economic units.

Dave Walks
I got quite animated (Image: Creative Commons "Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales" : Mark Gregory of Photoshy.com)

This challenge is distinct from abstract notions of ‘quality’. I can’t honestly say what the standard of teaching and learning is like on the offerings our study discovered but I see no evidence that a lucrative course is destined to be a less ‘educational’ experience than one that loses money. In many cases I suspect that the quality of online learning is higher than equivalent face-to-face courses because students expect significant amounts of contact when at a distance. In face-to-face teaching scenarios the lecture (a controversial subject this year) provides a very efficient sense of contact and notional cohort cohesion. For online this cohesion has to be built by regular feedback, tutor-student contact and peer-to-peer learning. The risk of a lack of social presence in a predominantly text based medium coupled with the influence of the micro-contact culture of the web means that only the online courses with excellent learning design will survive. The mode of delivery inherently demands good pedagogy and active engagement or students simply drop out.

I think it’s helpful to consider this area in terms of identity because this forces a consideration of values beyond the economic. As it stands the ‘digital identity’ of online higher education provided by the UK largely looks like a highly academic professional development programme. I must reiterate that I’m not criticising this activity in of itself rather I am holding out hope that future funding models will allow programmes outside this area to move online and better represent the varied and excellent teaching and learning this country is rightly known for.

If you are keen to discuss the role of technology within/around higher education in a political context then you might want to consider registering your interest for the proposed ‘Tech, Power, Education’ seminar series.

Slides from the talk:

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The Transition from the Co-Digital to the Post-Digital.

Having made public the original discussion paper ‘Planning for the Post-Digital’ members of the 52group then blogged the concept. These posts generated some strong responses, both in comments and in further blog reactions.Initial reactions to the Post-Digital interpreted the concept as dismissing the importance of technology (and the technologically minded) claiming that somehow the ‘digital’ had passed into history:

“In short, this isn’t the post-digital world, just like it isn’t the post-jet age or the post-space age. All of these technologies are not magic, they’re here, they’re real and they have real consequences. The way to deal with these changing technologies is the same as every craftsman has done since the iron age: respect the tools of your trade, without being obsessive about them (leave that to the toolmakers), and remember that any tool can be improved, and therefore will be.” Wilber Krann (comment on original post)

&

“I think that we should have some people obsessed with the technology (where has most of the technology come from?) and we should have people who can analyse it, and critique it, and say “Yes, this works in this situation because X” or ‘This is not useful as a learning technology’.” Pat Parslow

The Post-Digital was seen as a negative principle which devalues engagement with the technical encouraging us to be unthinking consumers of new hardware and platforms as they become ever more culturally ‘transparent’.

“what are the implications for accepting that we are in a postdigital age?  Don’t we then accept that our IT environment will be owned by the mega-corporations – Google and Microsoft…It strikes me that the postdigital agenda is a conservative one, in which we are asked to accept that we (in our institutions and in our working environment) cannot shape our digital environment. And for me that is a worrying point of view which I don’t accept.” Brian Kelly

Alongside these discussions Frances Bell suggested the term Co-Digital as a better term to describe the process of  “…seizing the opportunities presented by the newness of technologies to spot changes and then shape the development of the technology.”

The Co-Digital then describes the period of ‘flux’ (this is a term from the ‘Digital Habitats’ by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John D. Smith) which a technology goes through as the user community appropriates it and influences its development. This period is early in a technologies life-cycle but may not be in effect for very long as the user community expands.

Instead of the Co-Digital replacing the Post-Digital I think that they are concepts which describe different points of a larger process of transition.

I have tried to describe the transition technologies make from the Co to the Post-Digital in the diagram below. The model is an attempt to bring together the thinking that has emerged from the Post-Digital idea and put it in a larger context.

postdigital
Technological transition from the Co-Digital to the Post-Digital.

(The visual design of the diagram is a homage to the excellent ‘Hierarchy of Digital Distractions’ by David McCandless which I have stuck to the wall by my desk)

Rather than attempt to discuss through the diagram in detailed prose I have written up some simple notes which may help to describe the overall model:

Transition Stages

Co Digital:

The point at which the socio-tech flux (Wenger uses the term ‘Vortex’) is most fluid. Social appropriation of the tech influences its development. Similarly the tech starts to form the manner in which social engagement takes place and in which social capital is built.

Digital:

The tech is seen a culturally ‘shiny’ but its role is beginning to become ‘fixed’ in the mind of its growing community and in its socio-tech function.

Post-Digital:

The tech is no longer ‘shiny’. It is culturally normalised and not conceived of as ‘technology’ (‘Disappearing into Use’ is an brilliant phrase I have hear which describes this).  The tech is now understood by its core function i.e. culturally, the phone is seen as the conversations you have when using it. It is not generally considered in technological terms anymore. This phenomenon could also be seen as a transition to the Post –Technical.

‘Types’ of Users

Pioneers:

They build new stuff because they think it’s cool. Likely to be very tech orientated. Pushing the boundaries of what is possible technologically.

Players:

Probably community leaders. Not as tech focused as the Pioneers but they are adept at appropriating the new tech to their own ends. This is often done by building networks/community or promoting themselves as a brand. They are happy to subvert functionality and influence the evolution of the tech.

Pragmatists:

They follow players into technologies. They want to know what a tech is ‘for’ and how to use it ‘correctly’ before joining. They enjoy the ‘shiny’ once there is a cultural consensus. i.e. They are buying iPhones from Tesco’s now. They also actually like ‘top ten’ style lists on how to use platforms properly.

Phollowers (apologies):

They use the tech once it is fully culturally normalised. They are not interested in experimenting. This group bought the mobile phones they claimed they didn’t need once all their friends had one.

Institutions:

When these guys get involved they accelerate the shift from the Co Digital to the Digital. Think Twitter and the BBC.

What is the point?

  1. We need to influence the evolution of technology while it’s in the Co-Digital space. i.e. Edtech folk need to be players (well, some of them at least). Once a tech has moved out of the Co-Digital it is difficult to influence although it may be re-appropriated later in a different context. In my opinion Twitter is currently moving out of the Co-Digital space.
  2. As the user base in a tech expands the Pragmatists begin to out number the Players. Because the Pragmatists have a relatively fixed idea about the function of the tech this means that it becomes increasingly difficult for the tech to stay in flux. Think of the backlash every time facebook attempts to make changes to its interface or functionality.
  3. Once tech hits the Post Digital it is pretty much game over for direct innovation (but as I have mentioned re-appropriation is possible). Once Google and the ‘cloud’ become Post-Digital they will actually be running the world.

The model is clearly a work in progress…  I welcome your thoughts (especially as it was comments and posts on the original idea that helped move this forward to this stage)

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Post-digital – an update?

Earlier this week I ran a post-digital session with Rich Hall as part of the fringe (#falt09) activities around the ALT-C conference. We had an interesting time in the upstairs room of the Lass O Gowery in Manchester debating a series of statements which were designed to provoke post-digital thoughts, for example:

  • Learning technologists are obsessed with technology more than learning, which is why elearning will never make the mainstream.
  • We are purveyors of the worst kind of spin: ‘This new thing will solve all your problems’.
  • The speed of the change has left us with the mistaken belief that social change was somehow ‘created’ by the digital rather than simply played out on the canvas of the digital.
  • People with educations have huge advantages over those with skills and always will.

While these did lead to a lively discussion, I was still no clearer by the end as to how to describe post-digital as a concept. For many the term seems to imply a discarding of digital technologies as if they were no longer important. It also appears to promise some sort of new world order – which is not helpful.

After the fringe session I was even more convinced that the post-digital was a useful concept but that we hadn’t found the right way of expressing it yet.

A room with a view at ALT-C 2009

A couple of days later I gave my presentation at the ALT-C conference on my ‘Visitors & Residents’ principle. I had inserted a reference to the post-digital at the end of the talk to make the point that the Visitors & Residents idea rests on issues of motivation and personal preference rather than age or technical skill. This seemed to me to be a post-digital principle but, influenced by my conversations around the subject during the conference, I suggested that the term post-technical might be more appropriate.Ok so before I continue, yes this is a kind of semantic exercise, but what we have here I think is a strong idea which is difficult to express. One of the conclusions of the fringe sessions was that the rapid rate of change in technology is causing accelerated cultural effects which we are struggling to describe. (This was echoed in Michael Wesch’s keynote at the conference.) So I think it’s important to develop our thinking in this area even if it is a bit of a bumpy ride.

I can recommend Ian Truelove’s recent post on some of the pragmatic effects a post-technical approach can have in education. As Ian points out the technical is all about learning, and then following, a series of rules. Rules that we need to grasp before we can express ourselves ‘properly’. The manual for most software is written in this style – a button-pressing, linear approach. And yet the most successful (I’m thinking here in terms of uptake) online platforms don’t seem to have manuals. This is not necessarily because they are especially simple to use, but because they are massively multi-user and simply by watching the behaviour of fellow users it is possible to ‘pick up’ not only how to use the platform but also why you might want to use it. This should come as no surprise as we are particularly good at learning by observing fellow members of our own species. (There will be a fancy pedagogic/sociological term for this. If you know it then please insert it here as you read.)

Basic button-pressing, user-interface-comprehending activity is becoming culturally normalised and an ever-decreasing factor in our engagement with digital technologies (i.e. many of us are already digitally literate, if you will excuse the terminology). In effect our approach to technology need not be technical.

A simple post-technical example: the substantive effects of Twitter as a platform cannot be described by its technical functionality. Reading a technical manual for Twitter would not help a user to become resident in that online space. As Andy Powell suggests this in his ‘Twitter for Idiots’ post, individuals have to experience the culture of the groups/communities/networks/flocks/whatever to really ‘get’ what the platform is all about.

The post-technical then does not put technology second or first, it simply liberates the debate from those who build/code/provide the technology and puts it into the hands of those who appropriate it, the users, or ‘people’ as I like to call them, who write essays and poetry in Word, transform images in Photoshop, sustain friendships in Facebook, learn stuff by reading Wikipedia and express opinions in blogs.

The perspectives we are currently using, to come to an understanding of the cultural/educational influence of digital technologies and the opportunities therein, need to be reconsidered. I’m not sure yet if the answer lies in post-digital or post-technical approaches but I’m looking forward to tending these ideas over the next few months and seeing if something beautiful grows.

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