9 things to watch out for in 2014

1. Virtual Reality

A lot of people in education seem to be playing with Occulus Rift. At first look you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a retro-geek Virtual Boy, but Moore’s Law has brought a greater degree of immersion and realism to the structure. The combination of immersion and haptic/guesture technology (the Xbox Kinect system going some way to normalise this) could be useful in simulations for medicine and engineering to name but two.

The overlay of information onto a live video image from a phone camera is another idea that may finally be having its day. Projects like Scarlet are using such technologies successfully with artefacts and images, a more focused implementation than the very early experiments of just overlaying wikipedia on the view from your office window.

Those of us who have been round for a while will be thinking “second life” at this point – but given the experiences of stuff like fathom.com the xMOOC shouldn’t have happened even slightly. I prefer to draw the analogy with the animated GIF – a supposedly antiquated technology that enough interesting people are doing interesting things with that it just might become unexpectedly everywhere.

2. Algorithmic policy and the knowledge worker shift

Gone are the days when you could look knowledgeable just by using the words “big data” in conversation. Without going through any of the usual meaning-making or testing processes, it suddenly is an (enormous) fact of life. I think 2014 will be the year when we see policy development staff begin to be replaced by databases. After all, if big data can reduce every problem to a bar chart, you don’t need people to choose the option that the machine tells you will make the numbers go up.

Already we have machines that generate internet memes (often with truly terrifying results) as a warning regarding what can happen when you take humans out of decision making. One of your holiday tasks is to watch “All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace” again. And start thinking about telling better stories about how humans add value to decisions.

3. Data literacy

Leading on from the above, those of us who wish to continue being knowledge workers need to start making sense of data (and for that matter finance, but that’s maybe another story). If every policy position is “justified” by a slew of numbers, we need more people that can make sense of these numbers. Maths – naturally – is hard and we’d all rather be shopping or watching cat videos. But if we want to understand the decisions that affect the world around us, we need to learn to read numbers and to be confident in disputing them. Policy is now quantitative – we need to get better at teaching people how to participate.

4. Personal data trails

Our government’s loan shark friends Wonga already mine social media data when allocating loans. Moves by facebook, microsoft, sony and especially google (the so called “Nymwars“) to use real names in online social interactions makes this process easier.

We’ve all heard the horror stories of graduates losing jobs because of photographic facebook evidence of them enjoying themselves in some way. But the implications are greater than this. Slane Girl’s youthful indiscretion would once have been something she regretted in the morning and laughed about ten years later – in 2013 she was named and pilloried within hours. One mistake, one unguarded thought expressed online, and your life could be ruined.

My own position has always been is that if someone wants to attack you, they will find and use something online. Without context, without human feeling, every tweet is a weapon that can be used against you. Perhaps 2014 will be the year that we can no longer convince our learners to share.

5. Corporate courses (or whatever happen to the MOOC?)

With Udacity and Coursera moving towards to the corporate provision that early competitor Udemy moved to a long time ago, and even newcomer FutureLearn trumpeting employer and industry sign-ups rather than participation rates (I wonder if 90% of employers will drop out in the first 5 weeks?)  the “open” O feels like a very bad joke. But these entities aren’t leaving higher education entirely in search of profits, they are attempting to destabilise one of the most profitable parts of it.

MBAs and related courses are a huge earner for traditional institutions, not least because fees are generally paid by employers and can be ratcheted up to astronomical levels without your average blue-chip blinking. They are usually bought for rising stars, but given the growing trend of treating generation X and Y appallingly badly it is not inconceivable that rising stars could be fobbed off with a bad video of Andrew Ng in the future.

Coursera have been making some noises about being a publisher, whilst actual publishers are diversifying into accredited awards and learning technology. Convergence, anyone?

Against earlier expectations, institutions are beginning to ask questions about exactly what they are getting from the MOOC platform they work with, given the amount of staff time and reputation (and often hard currency) they are putting in. But the “pivot” could be seen as a victory for traditional education, when it is just a better profit targeting system.

6. Open classrooms

The unexpected stars of the Reclaim Open awards have been “open classes” that run alongside traditional class tuition, but in multiple locations. The venerable ds106 (the weird uncle of the MOOC) has led this movement, with simultaneous iterations in institutions across the world and even inside corporate boundaries. Participants each benefit from participation in the global community around the course, with encouragement and peer learning key to retention.

Coventry University’s Phonar, incredibly, is now delivered in hundreds of institutions in hundreds of countries around the world via the World Photo Org. And the FemTechNet DOCC (winner 3 of 5) has a similar nodal structure.

These programmes add value to the experience of traditional paying students whilst encouraging the world to join in. I’d hope and expect to see more of these initiatives in 2014, which manage to make pedagogic and financial sense.

7. Challenges to institutions

You may not realise it but 2013 has been a huge year for student and staff activism. Just in the last fortnight 7 UK institutions were in occupation, a major multi-union strike action brought many more campuses to a stand-still and students and staff worked together (#3cosas) to deliver living wages and conditions to some of the very lowest paid staff in The University of London. Despite the fears of educational commodification, we have the most politically active student body for a generation.

Combine this with the sad and sorry rise of casual contracts for academic and support staff, and you have both sides of the “student experience” equation reacting with open hostility to the structures that are constructed to confine and control them. Strikes and activism will be a major theme for UK education in 2014, and my limited understanding of the US, Canadian and major European systems suggest that this is a global movement. (Antipodean, South American, African readers – I’d love to learn if this is true for you too.). Will 2014 be the year in which Higher Education leads the way to a better deal for workers, during a near-decade long wage freeze? We can but hope.

8. Effectiveness metrics

More big data, I’m afraid. The way in which you do your job will be measured in more and more intrusive ways. From countless student surveys, to meaningless research impact metrics, to email CRM, much academic time is spend either actively measuring oneself or passively being measured. Older readers may suggest ’twas ever thus, but the corporate fashion for big data and (*shudder*) dashboarding has heightened and increased a tendency already manifesting in bureaucracies. (and I write this as someone who likes bureaucracies…)

Gamification is the other end of this story – students are also measuring themselves against themselves and their (real and imagined) peers, maximising the benefit they get from the work they put in. You can imagine both of these trends expanding in 2014, with much that has so far been experimental becoming mandatory. Looked at long term, it is a cyclical peak that last occurred in the 50s with “time-and-motion” studies, but for those living through it, it is scant consolation. This is another one that needs to be answered with some work on the value of human decision-making next year.

9. More funding chaos

Just today, a UK government minister announced the largest expansion in higher education funding since the 90s, all paid for by the dubious practice of selling loan books. Most serious wonks have been tending towards seeing this as a superficially pleasent short term political act, shoring up a broken funding system for the year and a half before the election. But we already know about the black hole in the heart of the BIS budget, and it is increasingly apparent that we will see another painful change in the funding system early in the next parliament.

Institutions in the HE system, meanwhile, have been celebrating the current tsunami of cash in the system by spending some of it on shiny stuff to impress prospective students and banking the rest to build up a reserve for when the whole thing goes pear shaped. The design of the funding system makes investment in running costs, like – er – staff a bad move, so many institutions have been laying off departments and using more casual staff to cover fluctuating course sizes.

The big winners, of course, are our friends at Pearson, who have coined it in due to a massive growth in fee loans to students studying lower-level HE awards in private colleges. Edexcel (a Pearson company) award most HNC/Ds in the UK via these private colleges.

The UK economy still struggles in the eyes of most of those living in it because the costs of living have risen whilst wages have stagnated. We are in a very fragile “paper” recovery which is meaningless to everyone but treasury accountants. There is not going to be enough money for the continued expansion of the HE system, and I’m predicting the rumours of the cuts to come and poorly managed loan sales to dominate the HE wonk news cycles in 2014. (Ed M, if you are reading this, how launching an independent study into HE Finance? Next year sometime would be good. I could probably round up some wonks for you if you like?)

(Bonus number 10: User data bubble – because targeted advertising is still not effective however many billions of dollars of venture capital is betting that it is. I’ve been saying this for two years, this is a long term prediction  but one that scares me more than most of the above because it would make 2008 look like a mild market correction.)

Overarching theme of the year for 2014 – the loss of human agency in decisions that affect the lives of human beings. Cheery stuff.

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