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Don’t buy a national HE funding model until you’ve read this….

So Wings Over Scotland ask how much the Scottish “free tuition” policy costs annually. It’s a tricky and potentially loaded question, which I guess is why he asked it.

[CyberNat note: I've not got an "official" position on #indyref - basically it's a matter for Scotland to decide and I'm staying out of it. Big chunks of both sides of my family are Scottish, and I don't want to annoy any of them. And I know "Wings over Scotland" is controversial, however I liked Amiga Power so I'm happy to crunch a few numbers in return for the boundless joy that the Five Hardy Jokes have brought me over the years. ]

On one level, it’s fairly easy to give a number – the Scottish Funding Council spent £635,825,107 on tuition1 at Scottish Universities. That’s from table 1A in the link, and is the actual spend, rather than being based on the model (where an amount of funding is attached to each student based on the course they are studying and a few other variables).

But here’s where the question gets interesting. Is this more or less expensive than HE in England? Allow me to drop some science on those assembled:

To spend £635,825,107 on tuition, the Scottish government spend £635,825,107 from their budget for that year. They do this because they think investment in higher education leads to national prosperity.

BIS (in England) have done a pile of research into this – they list the national market benefits of HE as being something like: greater tax revenue, faster economic growth,  greater innovation and labour market flexibility, increased productivity of co-workers (they mean that ALL workers benefit from working with HE-educated colleagues) and less public spending in other areas. They state, flat out, that 20% of English economic growth between 82-05 is due to having more graduates in the workforce.

(Why am I quoting English publications not Scottish ones? Well, the BIS one is the most recent one – and it is a literature review drawing on studies that look at HE all over the world. So I’m guessing these are applicable, in a general sense, globally).

However, in England we’ve decided to try to spend some of the financial gains from investing in HE in advance. When the English government wants to spend money on university tuition it has to start by lending most of it to students. It lent £15bn this year. (Then there’s some extra bits it pays via HEFCE, depending on student course choices and suchlike.) In 30 years time, it would get an unknown percentage of these student loans back  as they graduate and get jobs. Current best reckoning is that it would get around 55%2 back at today’s prices (well down from the 70% return that was expected when the policy was launched) after 30 years.

With this in mind - let’s say both England and Scotland spent £100 a year on tuition; actually, England hand out much more per student than Scotland does. There’s been a lot of talk of a “Funding Gap” between English and Scottish HE (basically English HEIs getting more cash in any given year than comparable Scottish ones), which became the reason that Scottish institutions now charge fees to English students. But let’s say both England and Scotland spent £100 a year on tuition…

Scotland would spend £100. each. year. from. general. taxation. For arguments’ sake they get at least £100 of benefit for this spend from the enhanced economic growth and all the rest, that comes from having £100 worth of graduate (in reality, it is a lot more than that, as described above).

England borrow £100 each year, and get £55 back in 30 years time. So, assuming they get the same £100 of benefit, they’ve already spent £45 of it. But! – a chunk of the money that £100 worth of graduate would otherwise have been pumping into the wider economy over that 30 years has been spent on fee loan repayments. So you’d will be wondering if that would have a negative effect on the overall benefit of HE spending on the economy?

The simple answer is that we don’t know precisely, but it looks likely. Much of the benefit coming from graduates back into the economy involves them spending more and paying more tax. Both of these activities are constrained by having to pay a loan back.

Some very smart folks at a think-tank called the Higher Education Policy Institute did a bunch of work when this policy was first announced in 2010, modelling all of this to see whether the policy would ever be cost effective. Their magic number was a 54% return – if the estimates of student loan repayments dropped below 54%, the funding system would never break even. Remember, it’s already more expensive than the Scottish model in any given year – this is about whether it would ever actually break even: if there would ever be a year in which more money comes in via loan repayments than is spent on new loans.

Working with the figures presented by BIS, HEPI figured out that this break-even point would be in at least 30 years by which time we would – of course - all have flying cars. But as we edge closer and closer to the 54% return this magical day is postponed before being cancelled entirely.

(Given that BIS are pretty much NEVER going to admit that projected return rates fall to this level, I’m going to make a punt and guess that they already have.)

If you think back a few paragraphs to that stuff about wider economic benefits and our pessimistic guess that £100 spend now gives us £100 benefit after 30 years, £45 of this benefit is gone – forever – because the money was never paid back. The remaining £55 has to be used to shell out £100 in loans to that years students. And obviously £55 is lot less than £100, so the government is spending more money in that year which it doesn’t have. Austerity LOLs.

The English system is basically a bet that the additional benefits to the wider economy from having graduates in it will outweigh the costs of servicing loans. If this bet doesn’t pay off, the government loses money.

Confused yet? It gets worse. One of the things that BIS  (those useless, cretinous, morons) want to do to bridge the gap between fee loan income and outgoings in the early years of the system is to SELL the loan book. This means that some mates of theirs in the private sector give the government a pile of money now for the right to receive the repayments as they come in via Student Finance England. This is another bet, with the private sector buyer paying much less than the face value of the loans based on how much money the reckon they will get back.

So, someone might buy £100 worth of student loans for £30, then sit back and watch the repayments roll in. This means the government gets £30 now, and NOTHING in 30 years. And what does it spend the £30 on? That’s right, MORE STUDENT LOANS, which can then be sold for less than their face value.

You may be getting the impression that English HE funding is a byzantine nightmarish cross between a ponzi scheme and the seedier end of the Las Vegas strip. And that Scotland is well out of it. (Alert readers may also be suspecting that the Scottish system is also cheaper (both in the short term and long term) and offers more benefit to the wider economy.)

So, returning to our initial question regarding whether Scottish spending on HE is more or less expensive than English spending on HE, the answer is almost certainly that it is less expensive.  It is definitely less expensive within any given year, and very likely to be less expensive in the long term.

[If you want to read more about the crazy, Andrew McGettigan's book is a good place to start]


1 – note this is just direct spending on tuition, and doesn’t include stuff like research funding. Incidently – this is nonsense, as I’m sure was pointed out at the time.
2 – this is usually expressed as being a 45% “RAB” charge on the loans, “RAB” meaning Resource Accounting Budget. But I expressed it as a 55% repayment rate both because it is easier for the lay reader to follow and because I didn’t want to make the inevitable joke about Rab C Nesbitt3
3 – the word “joke” here used in a very loose sense. As it was by the writing staff of the BBCs “regional” comedy, Rab C. Nesbitt

The 2003 White Paper on teaching, revisited.

For a fair number of years the 2003 DfES White Paper (“The Future of Higher Education”) was my life, to the extent that I could quote paragraph numbers. I’ve just had reason to dive back in to check a reference, and I got to looking at the key recommendations on teaching (chapter 4). Can the impact of the recommendations still be seen eleven years on?

■ We are rebalancing funding so that new resources come into the sector not only through research and student numbers, but through strength in teaching.

This was a general aspiration (that underpinned the rest of the chapter to a greater or lesser extent) rather than a specific policy.

■ Student choice will increasingly work to drive up quality, supported by much better information. A comprehensive survey of student views, as well as published external examiners reports and other information about teaching standards, will be pulled together in an easy-to-use Guide to Universities, overseen by the National Union of Students.

The National Student Survey, of course! This has just been reviewed by HEFCE - and the review notes a number of practical and methodological issues, including significant changes to questions.

“[Both] stakeholders and students thought the NSS had conceptual weaknesses concerning what it measured, and methodological weaknesses related to what it covered. In particular, they were concerned that the NSS’s scope was too narrow in terms of students’ experiences and their engagement in learning and teaching which undermined the NSS’s efficacy in informing student choice and enhancing students’ academic experience.”

The wider collection of materials has been supplanted by Unistats, having previously been TQI – neither of which was ever run by the National Union of Students. Opinion appears to be mixed on the value of the data displayed by the service, some of which may be down to underlying issues with JACS coding.

The Key Information Set (KIS) also sits within this space. As does much of the thrust of the Browne Review and the 2010 White Paper (“Students at the Heart of the System”).

But as a recent HEFCE review concluded, student choice is a bit more complicated than that.

■ To underpin reform, we will support improvements in teaching quality in all institutions. Additional money for pay will be conditional on higher education institutions having human resource strategies that explicitly value teaching and reward and promote good teachers.

The DfES (as was) asked HEFCE to ensure that institutions had a policy to reward high-quality teaching, and then gave them some extra non-ringfenced money. Some institutions did (and continue to) have good processes for teaching-related promotion. For others it was more around lip-service. The new model of funding higher education pretty much undoes this reform, as all funding now follows student choice.

■ New national professional standards for teaching in higher education will be established as the basis of accredited training for all staff, and all new teaching staff will receive accredited training by 2006.

There was an awesome multi-agency consultation, and then the then-new Higher Education Academy, took ownership of a set of professional standards on behalf of the sector (which initially looked the same as the old ILTHE standards. The UKPSF has been updated and continues to exist, the Academy accredits institutional courses based on it - and the indications are that it will continue to do so throughout the forthcoming reorganisations. However, the Academy is emphatically not a professional body, and has no wish to maintain lists of qualified HE teachers.

The standards never became compulsory (“a license to practice”), but most institutions now offer a PGCertHE to new staff, which leads to said staff member becoming a “Fellow” of the Academy. The University of Huddersfield is currently the only English university where all staff with substantive teaching roles are fellows, though data overall is not good enough to share with students.

■ The external examining system will be strengthened by improved training and induction, including a national programme for external examiners by 2004–05.

Both the QAA and the Academy have published advice and guidance on external examining, but I’m not aware of a national programme either currently or in the past. (There is an active JiscMail list, however)

■ We will also celebrate and reward teaching excellence. We are consulting on the establishment of a single national body – a teaching quality academy – which could be established by 2004 to develop and promote best practice in teaching.

And so it came to pass. The Academy was launched on Monday 18th October 2004 (from the LTSN, ILTHE and TQEF NCT – HESDA headed for the Leadership Foundation instead) and has worked hard to win the support and trust of the sector as an independent champion of teaching in higher education. It has faced a number of cuts in recent years, losing the much loved subject centre network and faces further cuts in the next few years.

■ Centres of Excellence in teaching will be established to reward good teaching at departmental level and to promote best practice, with each Centre getting £500,000 a year for five years, and the chance to bid for capital funding.

■ The National Teaching Fellowships Scheme will be increased in size to offer substantial rewards to twice as many outstanding teachers as at present.

The other components of the support for teaching quality were systems of national rewards. The National Teaching Fellows continue with another clutch of excellent teachers made Fellows this year, but  the £315m Centres for Excellence in Learning and Teaching have, with a small number of exceptions, largely disappeared.

The CETLs, on reflection, represented a particularly profound missed opportunity. They attempted both to be reward and beacon, a way of incentivising local excellence and sharing practice nationally. Years of hopes and dreams were pored into something that still had to maintain the constraints of the text in the paper. (Weeks were spent doing basic things like changing the name – from Centres OF Excellence to Centres for Excellence – and abandoning the “commended for excellence” consolation designation).

DfES originally hoped to expand this initiative as a counterweight to research funding, but even by the time of launch changing priorities made this look unlikely. Capital, in particular proved hard for HEFCE to allocate and there was a second allocation to existing centres.

■ To recognise excellent teaching as a university mission in its own right, University title will be made dependent on teaching degree awarding powers – from 2004–05 it will no longer be necessary to have research degree awarding powers to become a university.

At the time this seemed revolutionary, but given what David Willetts ended up doing this looks tame on reflection. A small number of former Colleges of HE became Universities as a result of this change, and one new institution – The University of Cumbria - was founded.

All of these interventions have had some positive influence on the sector, but none have profoundly changed the sector. Looking back, this was evolution rather than revolution in teaching at least. The main thrust of the contemporary debates around the paper concerned the imposition of “top-up fees”, themselves unwittingly laying the foundations of the Browne model of funding.

The price of everything

So, that Andrew McGettigan tweeted about the ThinkBelt today – Cedric Price’s mid-60s designs and concepts for a distributed, community-based, industrial university in the Potteries district (basically Greater Stoke-On-Trent).

Price was keen to design a campus that was adaptable and flexible to changing needs, but an institution that could offer a scale and intensity that could have an impact on the economy of the region and nation. He felt that:

“Because education beyond 18 is not accepted as a prime national industry, universities and colleges risk seeming to lack (a) recognisable social relevance, and (b) the capacity to initiate progress rather than attempt to catch up”

His designs relied heavily on temporary and mobile structures using industrial methods of production, and an internal transport network based on an existing, disused, railway line. He postulates that both age and length of study would be far more flexible than in traditional universities, and that computer-aided instruction and administration would have a central place to play. But it is clear that he sees the institution as an experiment in community and infrastructure regeneration rather than as a new form of learning and practice [although those with an interest in networked learning make find some of Price's diagrams of interest]

PThinkBelt

Which makes the geographical site of the proposed 100km2 campus very interesting for any student of the way that UK Higher Education has grown over the past 70 years.  Established as a university college in 1949, The University of Keele received a royal charter in 1962, conferring degree awarding powers as the second (after Sussex) of the 60s wave of new (“plate glass“) universities.

Initially a project of Alexander Dunlop Lindsay, an advocate of adult education and a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, the University College of North Staffordshire (as it was then known, was founded to provide a wider and deeper education for the working man. As Lindsay himself said:

“If we are going to try and keep a democratic country and maintain understanding of one another, we have to send out people from our universities who can do the technical stuff and who at the same time have an understanding of political and social problems and of the values that lie behind them”

He worked closely with the local Workers Education Association, and eventually became the first Principal of the new organisation.

Keele, though predating the Robbins Report, could be said to have been the first to fully take on board the influence of paragraph 262 of the report, which states:

“A higher proportion should be receiving a broader education for their first degrees. This in itself calls for change. But if greatly increased numbers of undergraduates are to come into the universities in the future, change becomes essential. Indeed we regard such a change as a necessary condition for any large expansion of universities. Greatly increased numbers will create the opportunity to develop broader courses on a new and exciting scale, and we recommend that universities should make such development one of their primary aims.”

It claims to be the first UK institution to offer a modern Joint Honours Degree, and (until 1990) required that all undergraduates spent a foundation year studying the development of western civilisation before commencing their studies.

On the Keele experiment Cedric Price merely notes:

“Keele, the first (sic) post-war New University, has shown the slowest growth of all British universities (present student population approximately 1,000). It has little contact with the area and few faculties linked to local industries.”

000_Potteries Thinkbelt

What we are seeing in these two parallel dreams of using university education to revitalise a stagnating industrial area is the difference between the industrial and academic perspective.

Both represent a change from current practice, but one is short term and focused on industry and short-term gain, the other on the wider concerns of civilisation. One arrives on an unknown landscape as a disruption, the other is based around existing structures and communities in the area. One takes little or no account of the small-scale but successful existence and work of the other.

It’s an age old story of the needs of commerce and the concerns of academia, which makes me think of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem world of Concents and Extramurous as perhaps the last great campus novel.

Why do you hate learning? Why do you hate the future?

Trying not to use the term “drop out” in the MOOC world is now a thing, with the publication of proper actual research about it.

Well, up to a point. Said proper, actual, research was presented in a session on “The Future” at the WWW14 conference in Seoul, Korea. I’ve had a hunt around the usual places and am unable to offer you a link to Ashton Anderson’s slides, or to any blog or twitter commentary on the presentation.

One of the most amazing parts of the paper is the acknowledgements – it gives one a real sense of how valuable this kind of research currently is, and how much is invested in it. I make no apologies for quoting it in full below.

“We thank Andrew Ng, Daphne Koller, Pamela Fox and Norian Caporale-Berkowitz at Coursera for their help with implementing the badge system and for sharing the data with. Supported in part by a Google PhD Fellowship, a Simons Investigator Award, and Alfred P Sloan Fellowship, a Google Research Grant, ARO MURI, DARPA SMISC, PayPal, Docomo, Boeing, Allyes, Volkswagen, Intel and NSF grants [...]“

That’s some serious research funding firepower, not to mention the near-priceless opportunity to experiment “live” with Coursera learners.

Man reviews academic paper

I'm not going to look here at the paper in any great depth - suffice it to say that I am not convinced that the engagement styles section really adds anything to our understanding - the overwhelming majority of "learners" in all courses do not participate or participate at very low levels, and that very high (>80% of marks) achievers actually watch less lecturers than is average.  For those that have read MOOC participation research such as the work of Weller and Jordan, these findings should come as little surprise.

The second section, around adding a system of "badges",  looks at the use of various configurations of badge incentive systems to get "learners" to make more forum posts. This is another one of those interventions hampered by experimental design - there was the chance to do a nice randomised controlled trial, but the investigators chose to use an earlier iteration of the course as a control rather than using a null group of students in the same iteration. Because the course itself may have changed, and the cohort for the last iteration would have different characteristics and is itself twice the size of earlier runs (tables 1 and 2) , it's not really safe to make comparisons or to base changes on one particular intervention.

So anyway - the focus is on different ways of presenting the badge system (basically, you get a shiny object for key learning activity like making a post or starting a thread, based primarily on measures of "interest" from other students. As you get badges for expressing "interest" as well, this is likely a gameable measure as, if badges are desirable to students it is in everyone's, er, interests to vote as many posts as "interesting" as possible.

Ashton et al decided to look at the total number of forum actions (not meaningful engagement, per se) as a measure of success, which is a teeny bit disengenous. Apparently if you tell "learners" how to get a badge by clicking on things, they are more likely to click on the things than if you don't. Because SCIENCE.

So, you are probably asking yourselves, what has this not especially interesting but well-funded bit of research got to do with drop-outs? Absolutely zero, it would appear to me – but this is the finding (in the loosest possible sense) that the Chronicle takes from the paper.

Coursera (and FutureLearn, and EdX…) have spent the last year or so trying to downplay the importance of the average 85% drop-out rates that Katy Jordan so expertly curates, and do so in concert with the “student experience” wing of academia which assert that someone who has done none of the work associated with learning can’t be said not to have done any learning.  Liyanagunawardena [2014] characterises this latter tendency in asking academics what they thought “drop out” meant and then asking them to reflect on it in a semi-structured interview untill they behaved like academics and saw both sides of the argument.

For everyone else, who thinks that perhaps all of these claims of enhanced learner experience and the attractiveness of video&quiz&forum pedagogy need to be backed up by evidence of improved engagement, this pincer movement yields a very uncomfortable experience.

Either we talk about drop-outs because we hate learners, or because we hate the future.

The most common metaphor I hear is this one:

This is a great argument to advocate not reading the entire internet.  However, a MOOC is nothing like a newspaper. It is a curated and structured set of materials leading towards a particular goal. To use my favourite metaphor, it is like a menu at a restaurant.

Even with the price set at zero, the majority of users are not merely trying the odd forkful or just eating the tiramisu. They are turning their nose up at the whole meal. The overwhelming weight of published research supports this.

So why would anyone be arguing otherwise? Let’s don our tinfoil hats and speculate!

Tar7arus [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], from Wikimedia Commons
Maybe MOOCs are like newspapers, but in another way. Maybe content creation costs are going up but there is no sign of a sustainable business model.  So like the rest of the rapidly collapsing internet content industry, they turn to the the one group of people more starry-eyed and unrealistic than people who think they can make money out of internet content – advertisers.

To persuade advertisers to give you money in return for putting flashing things on your pages you need to give them class A controlled substances evidence that your pages are being looked at by people. Ideally those who have money, the coveted demographics that overwhelmingly sign up for MOOCs.

So it is in the interest of the content creator to emphasise the level of engagement that it has, and their likelihood of engagement with messages from their platform of choice. And clearly “drop out” is not an attractive term here. Drop-out implies that someone is paying no attention to any part of your website or mailings. “Drop out” does not delight advertisers.

If you’ve got big numbers like the number of people who sign up for a MOOC then you want to use them. Stands to reason. Headline writers like them, advertisers LOVE them.

Any redefinition you can do to get rid of those words has the potential to be immensely valuable. So that is why, if I had a MOOC platform or an interest in cheap online education, I’d totally be funding and supporting research that redefined “drop-out”.

What about those clangers, eh? #cetis14

Note to readers that don’t live inside my head – The Clangers was a 1970s UK TV kids programme which could have been entitled “LOLs with Swanee Whistles”. It was (and most likely remains) impossible to survive your first month at university without having a conversation during a dull evening in a rubbish Student Union bar about retro children’s TV, how strange it was, and how everyone involved was clearly on drugs.

So. It’s official. The cool kids of EdTech snarking are now, nauseous with the dizzying headlong rush to whatever TechCrunch reckons is the future, looking in the recently discovered other (non-future) direction: alias “The Past”.

It is, as LP Hartley noted during what must have been a particularly dull evening in the Student Union Bar, a foreign country. Things were done differently. Depending on your point, this may have been with a charming naivete or a jejeune gaucheness, but it generally boils down to the idea that at the time we knew less than we do now – with the inevitable implied corollary that here in 2014 we somehow know more.

And the more we know, the less work we need to do. Or so we would think.

Brian Lamb and Jim Groom recently wrote about “innovation fatigue“:

The practice of outsourcing itself seems to have become the pinnacle of innovation for information technology in higher education.”

If this is the case, it is little wonder we hark back to the time we would change the world for ourselves.

The word and condition of “nostalgia”, interestingly enough, were originally invented in the 17th Century by a 17th century doctor named Johannes Hofer, and was pretty much synonymous with homesickness. He hypothesised that Swiss mercenaries were particularly troubled with this “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause” because of the constant ringing of cowbells in the alps. Over the years the meaning of “nostalgia” has mutated to describe a longing for the type of homecoming that one could only achieve with a heavily modified DeLorean.

In his book “RetromaniaSimon Reynolds cites the story above in the introduction of a becomingly scholarly look at why popular culture is obsessed with its own past. He divides nostalgia from “retro”, with the latter being a specifically twisted form of the new nostalgia:

“[...] that you can feel for the glory days of ‘living in the now’ that you didn’t… actually … live through” (page xxix)

One of his central theses is that the ageing and gentrifying of the original prime movers of popular music has lead to the growth of retrospectives that are aimed at this time- and money-rich market. Because of this, it is argued, those attempting to establish a culture of their own are hamstrung by these cultural behemoths – which become a pattern for the idea of cultural revolution against which newer attempts are measured and found wanting. Leaving us with a range of attempts to recreate the novelty and freshness of experiments of the past by explicitly following the recipe.

But we cannot. We know too much. In edtech, as in music.

Much of the talk at the CETIS14 conference focused on the past, even the opening keynote (Jisc’s Phil Richards) began by citing his own heritage within the lineage of Jisc- and TLTP- supported projects. His former sparring-partner Phil Barker‘s session on metadata was similarly reflective, and although Lorna Campbell’s session on Open Policy didn’t have quite the same lengthy pedigree, we still got back as far as the filo-rice-pudding-wastes of 2008.

These are hardly “hidden histories” – they are documented and described in project plans, reports and blog posts – but they are “unpopular histories”. Their unpopularity stems solely from the fact that they failed to change the word and remind those who would still try of the near-hopelessness of their task.

One imagines an inscription at the back of the Yellow Book (the colour books themselves were standardised with the support of a forerunner of Jisc) or within the old Janet NRS-

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away”

(or should that be “away far stretch sands level and lone The….” :-) #bigendianLOLs

We, as the institutionally and systemically based agitators of yore, are now a backwater, professional Cassandras that either maintain the reviled legacy platforms or feed the new disruptive ones with content, effort and time – for little esteem and less money in both cases.

It seems almost redundant to point out that it is these academic and support staff that make the greatest impact on the actual experience of actual students - not that it stops me doing it, mind - and likewise that the institution now exists as a means to sustain itself as a corporate body rather than to sustain and develop a collegiate community.

But I think we’re at, in the argot of the times, “peak student”. The current policy obsession with shaping the system around “student needs” is increasingly seen as representing a concerted attack on the professionalism of academic and support staff, especially when coupled with a parallel investment focus on estates and the seemingly expected infrastructure.

“Peak student” offers us a fetishisation of the tangible facets of student experience coupled with a desire for an impression of novelty, both of which are seen as a means to enhance the experience of the largely imaginary student that is at the heart of the system. (The needs of the real student – advice, challenge, inculcation into a community of scholarship, the skills to learn and adapt to a very uncertain world, and suchlike – don’t really figure here).

All of which is a round-about way of saying that the fact that we do have 50+ years experience of the ins and outs of sharing learning materials electronically is a beautiful irrelevance to those holding the purse-strings. The fact that we can neatly and deftly critique the strengths and weaknesses of something like Coursera or Futurelearn pales into insignificance against a well-designed infographic and the fact everyone else (of note) is involved.

You could describe overwhelming sarcasm at the ahistoricism amongst the “next generation” of innovators as sheer sour grapes. But it is not as if they are succeeding where others have failed.

Rather, it is that technology parted company from the shock of the new some time ago. And this painful separation will take years to become apparent – whilst the chance to refocus on culture, community, collegiality and cohesion is lost.

Goodbye Andrew Ng….

So, whenever @cogdog and I get together – and there is beer to be quaffed and instruments to be played – we always end up creating music in our own special genre, the “Ng” song.

This all started with Andrew’s slightly disastrous opened2013 keynote address, where his use of Skype to deliver a half-hour presentation required we turned off all of our connected devices to save bandwidth. Which went down a treat as you can image.

But with Andrew’s days at Coursera now over, I guess this must be the last of the Ng songs.

Enjoy.

Disruption over before it began.

After I write a paper, or a blog post, or a tweet even – it is common practice to read it through. Not just to pcik up typos, or to rethink my legendarily – and, infuriatingly to press office friends, needlessly – complex sentence structure: but to ensure that what I have written actually makes sense and doesn’t contradict itself.

It is the latter of these that Clayton “Disruption” Christensen omits in a recently published screed over at the Boston Globe. CC, for those just joining this ongoing tale, has form in pivoting away from his ideological love-child and declaring that the the future of education is “hybrid“.

“Hybrid” – in this context, is using technology alongside traditional classroom based instruction. It’s a retreat from the wider “disruption” idea that lower-quality, low-cost provision will undercut existing courses and institution, in that it sees the institutions as being complicity in their own disruption. (again, we’re in Von Hippel territory, where innovation is driven by actors already in this space.)

But anyway. Read it through and answer this question: does Christensen think that MOOCs have failed or succeeded in disrupting education?

He starts of suggesting that it is too early to say  - a fairly weak claim that “[the MOOC] potential to disrupt is only just beginning to be seen“.

But a few paragraphs later we have “Without even competing directly as true low-cost substitutes, MOOCs have managed to generate price competition previously unheard of among traditional campuses“. MOOCs, apparently are responsible for all cost reductions in higher education.

That’s a hell of a claim.  MOOCs did all that?  But it gets worse:

Free access to content from prestigious institutions revealed that content didn’t need to be proprietary”

Let’s ignore, for the sake of clarity, that this is proprietary content, owned jointly by said prestigious institutions and MOOC platforms. Let’s also ignore the fact that it is not reusable content, in that you need to seek permission to reuse a MOOC video (and why, seriously would you want to – it is not what it has been designed to do?). Let’s talk textbooks. Let’s talk academic papers.

Proprietary content is, like it or not, a part of education despite the efforts of the likes of David Wiley and David Porter to develop OER textbooks. And, most likely, it always will be. Different content formats and ownership structures will likely establish themselves – but all of these are windows into the decidedly non-proprietary sum of human knowledge. Unless we get the wholesale IP reform I am hoping for, we’re stuck with paying (at some point, in some way) for the efforts of those who curate and display this knowledge.

Same paragraph:

Despite the intense trepidation that technology would somehow replace teachers, it became clear that MOOCs didn’t preempt interaction; instead, they forced more contact and accountability on both the student and the teacher.”

MOOCs actively preempt interaction, contact and accountability between the student and the teacher.!This is why there’s all the (nonsensical) talk about AI, and all those experiments with peer assessment. MOOC courses are pretty expensive to develop, but the one key cost saving as against traditional provision is that you can run much higher staff:student ratios because students cannot contact their tutors. (Let’s leave whether or not this is a good student experience to one side for now). So a completely false statement.

Faculty have also been forced to reassess how and why they teach the way they do. Some professors began experimenting with alternative models, such as flipped classrooms and other blended-learning techniques by taking advantage of readily available, open, online materials.”

Forced to experiment. Forced. Again Christensen displays a terrifying ignorance of the actual reality of modern academic teaching, which has been using flipped-classroom (seriously… “do the reading, come to the seminar” and blended learning are widespread) and related techniques for a long time. This experimentation comes largely from academic teaching staff taking pride in their work and seeking to improve.

Udacity, for its part, should be applauded for not burning through all of its money in pursuit of the wrong strategy. The company realized — and publicly acknowledged — that its future lay on a different path than it had originally anticipated. Indeed, Udacity’s pivot may have even prevented a MOOC bubble from bursting.

*applauds* Udacity for totally burning through a hell of a lot of other peoples money in pursuit of the wrong strategy and getting Thomas Friedman to hype it out of all proportion.

I’m not sure that the #thrunpivot has prevented a MOOC bubble from bursting. Enough people seem to be investing time and money in ensuring the bubble does not burst to keep it inflated for a few years yet before venture capital moves on. But here Christensen is implicitly agreeing that Udacity was right to move away from competing directly with institutions, not saying that the MOOC movement has been successful at anything other than generating blog posts and sarcasm.

Oddly, bubbles occur when too many people are too right about the potential of something like MOOCs. The personal computer bubble of 1984 and the dot-com bubble from 1999 to 2002 epitomize what’s known as “capital market myopia,” when investors ignore the logical implications of their individual investments in the same business category. MOOCs could have easily fallen into a similar trap — it’s difficult to imagine all the organizations receiving the enormous, collective investment in online learning ultimately succeeding.”

This is too good. Because everyone was *right* about the potential of the MOOC the MOOC did not achieve this potential. So if we all stop being *right* about the need to end the adjunctification of education and raise state funding for HE then it will happen?

I’d say there is – maybe – a space for one or two “MOOC “platforms offering adult-learning style course and selling tat alongside to pay the hosting bills. Maybe. But it is not a disruption simply because it is not attractive enough an offer to draw customers away from traditional education.

In all likelihood, companies like Coursera and Udacity — Harvard and MIT’s offering, edX, operates as a nonprofit — that started out as MOOC providers will eventually move away from certain qualities of the unfortunate acronym. “Massive” and “open” are not particularly conducive to viable or sustainable business models.”

Well there we have it, the Massive Open Online Course is the future. This, if we are honest, is an admission that the MOOC does not work in this arena. What we are left with is the less exciting proposition that “if prestigious institutions continue to give us lots of exclusive content we can sell it cheaper and to more people than the institutions can.”

Christensen tails off with some nonsense about courses not meeting the needs of employers, as if that were somehow the reason that wages are stagnating and and opportunities drying up for highly trained and skilled graduates.

For all of the bombast around disruption as a theory it is a pretty bleak prognosis. Consumers make choices primarily driven by cost, it goes. Education is all about future benefit in employment. Employment in 3-4 years will look pretty similar to employment now, and employers are best placed to identify any changes.

Maybe the time has come, in these less than certain times, to replace the theory of disruption with something less certain of a future that looks much like a more miserable version of the present. Maybe employers – currently engaged in hiring less, laying off more and deskilling elsewhere, are not best placed to consider the future of employment. Maybe tuition fees are high by political choice, and we need a change of politics to lower them.

Messages that have been in Spam more than 30 days will be automatically deleted

It just occurred to me that the linkless spam that clogs up my gmail spam folder is:

  • written by machines, according to an algorithm
  • distributed to a list of uncertain provenance
  • read and filtered by machines according to another algorithm
  • deleted without ever having been read by a human being.

It appears to exist, as far as I can see, as a means of fine-tuning automated writing processes in order to game automated reading processes. Meanwhile, the automated reading processes are using the same data to refine themselves.

And this is huge data.  Around 200 billion emails are sent per day, of which around 70% are unsolicited (or spam) – though this is slowly dropping.

Like high-frequency trading, this is an instance of a system acting in ways that are initially incomprehensible to human observers but on careful scrutiny moves towards a goal.

But what is the “goal” of spam email?  A few years ago I would have said to be read by humans. But clearly humans do not (in the main) read spam, and if they do they are unable to act on it.

I’ve got a couple of hypotheses:

  1. Spam is a zombie system. No new spam systems are set up, but older ones – based on weak AI – are left to iterate in a similar way that Bayesian filters do. The “spam poetry” we are left with is the result of algorithms left to iterate for many “generations” longer than they were designed to do (very similar to that 10 year old save game of Sim City 2). And possibly this will one day happen to those high-frequency traders. OR;
  2. The entire system of spam is part of a decades-old research project into developing software that would pass the Turing test. Initially using faux- commercial topics to prompt major email providers to ramp up iteratively-learning spam filters, the principal investigator created and used virus- and botnet- systems to spread similarly iterating spam creation tools that would move away from commerce (has anyone ever bought anything from a spam email?) in an attempt to get around the filters. An experiment now running entirely autonomously, it has allowed (send) machines to begin to pass for humans in written language and (receive) machines to break down and analyse language.

Theory 2, obviously, suggests an astonishingly smart individual who has researched AI, learning and autonomous machine decision making at a number of major academic institutes and also has links to a major provider of cloud-based email send and filter functions.

Maybe all of your email spam is because of Sebastian Thrun’s attempts to perfect artificial intelligence.

Jim Groom in SPAAAAACE. #oer14

Ok, how about this as a proposition:

“Open Education, as we know it, is predicated on the ability to share and use material without constraint – and this is a capacity baked in to the underpinnings of the internet. But the internet is changing.

  • In the UK, as in China and in many other parts of the world, the government has the right to define what can and cannot be seen on the internet.
  • In the US the demise of Net Neutrality means that this right to filter and constrain is now owned by those who provide your data connection.
  • A globalised “national security” industry has been reading and analysing our online activity. Despite our scandalised responses, this is still happening.
  • And across the world our ability to define and develop our internet selves as constrained by the actions of the entities that host this information, and even by the shape of the containers we are invited to pour ourselves into.
  • Though we once seemed on the point of solving the issue of sharing data between environments, this is again becoming harder. And it is becoming harder by deliberate design.
  • All of this, is constrained even more finely by the awakening “corporate internet”, where everything that we share could have repercussions on our ability to work and earn.

The internet is not the same as it once was. And it is likely to become a harsher, less welcoming, less forgiving place.

This session is not a session to make you feel good about sharing your resources, or opening up your courses. We will be looking at the way we as actors entered the online stage, and the actions we have made upon it, throughout our connected lives.

Above all we will be talking about the idea of ownership – a hugely unpopular idea that I still feel a little uncomfortable about. But this is the nature of this workshop. We will be taking a long, hard look at exactly what we are doing. And we may not like the answers we get.

A “domain of one’s own”, in the light of such doommongering, may seem very little. But the idea of using and supporting “space” online, rather than accounts or platforms, is at once an old fashioned idea and a revolutionary one.”

Bloody hell, eh? This is how Jim Groom and I introduced our session on Reclaim Hosting at the OER14 conference in Newcastle at the end of March. At least, that’s how I did it. Jim is such a slacker I had to beam him in via specialised equipment (no Andrew Ng-ing here).

(photo: cogdog@flickr)
(photo: cogdog@flickr :CC-BY-SA)

The “ghost of Jim Groom” as delegates dubbed the assembly (in reality a hatstand, tablecloth, poster tube, blue spotlight and cheap lo-res projector) was able to address the session and engage in discussion with me and others.

The session involved various conversations across time (via the gift of Martin Hawksey’s Paleophone*) speaking to a 1994, 2006 and 2014 Jim Groom about the state of online learning at that time. We intercut this with participants talking and thinking about the way that they first experienced interacting with and creating with the internet, and the way that they now construct their digital identity/identities.

What struck me here is the way that the optimism of the early years, which kind of reached a peak in 2006, had been replaced by a caution and a reluctance to experiment. The big difference was between the Jim of ’06 and the (bald!) Jim of ’14.

Open Education has lived through the peak of “Web 2.0” craziness, and the current retreat to the ever-welcoming embrace of the LMS is something that has taken many involved in the movement by surprise. But looked at from a wider cultural perspective (alas, we didn’t have much time to get into this during the session) we can see that the wider emphasis on measurable impact and control within our lives more generally.

There are few arguments more difficult to make to an organisation than the argument for “fast, cheap and out of control”.

What Reclaim Hosting begins to offer is a way to have our own space, were we own and manage (or not) what we want to share. I connect to it via some of the emphasis on individual and team agency above institutional activity that the latter days of UKOER got into. Others may (or may not) agree.

But I’m iterating closer and closer to the Von Hippell model of innovation where “lead users”, or individual agents and small groups, are solving problems under their own initiative. A wise organisation knows to at least permit (and if possible, support) these innovations and help them become generalised as needed. A less wise one buys in tools or practice that look innovative from elsewhere.

As a simple way of bringing an experimental space to organisational academic practice, reclaim hosting is a hugely important move. In open education – a space now rapidly being colonised by organisational interia and being eaten away at the edges by silicon valley, we are more in need of experimentation than ever.

What will you do with your space?

*Martin actually invented the Paleophone in 2020 but then called me in early 2014 to instruct me on building one to use in this session with Jim. I think it is touching that the first thing Martin did when inventing what basically amounts to a time machine is to help me with my OER14 session, but that’s just the measure of the man :-)

Dickens on big data

It has become one of those common place go-to riffs in education reform. Not quite up there with “education is broken” or that bloody Ferris Beuller video. But if you’re listening to someone with pretensions of a literary background you may well catch an earful of that classic indictment of useless educators:

Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them”

If you are lucky, you may be introduced to the fact that the character speaking is named Gradgrind and the book is Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times“. Gradgrind, of course, wasn’t a teacher – this was the charmingly named Mr M’Choakumchild – nor had he any real reason to be in the school at that point.

For what is (to my mind) one of Dickens’ more incisive and political books it is not often read. Certainly it has it’s share of unexpected familial coincidences and grotesque characters, and naturally poverty is compared with the moneyed classes with a situationally unlikely set of instances of social mobility – but at heart it is a dystopian novel based on the excesses of a certain persuasion of utilitarianism.

“The greatest happiness of the greatest number” is the Benthamite cry, and this led indirectly to Jeremy sitting in on UCL committee meetings more than 150 years after his death. But a great deal of the ongoing utilitarian work was finding reliable methods of identifying when people were happy, and the conditions that were preventing this.

There is a charming passage in Hard Times where Dickens reflects on the earnestly pursued data-driven diagnoses:

[…] there was a native organisation in Coketown itself, whose members were to be heard of in the House of Commons every session, indignantly petitioning for acts of parliament that should make these people religious by main force. Then came the Teetotal Society, who complained that these same people would get drunk, and showed in tabular statements that they did get drunk, and proved at tea parties that no inducement, human or Divine (except a medal), would induce them to forego their custom of getting drunk. Then came the chemist and druggist, with other tabular statements, showing that when they didn’t get drunk, they took opium. Then came the experienced chaplain of the jail, with more tabular statements, outdoing all the previous tabular statements, and showing that the same people would resort to low haunts, hidden from the public eye, where they heard low singing and saw low dancing, and mayhap joined in it; and where A. B., aged twenty-four next birthday, and committed for eighteen months’ solitary, had himself said (not that he had ever shown himself particularly worthy of belief) his ruin began, as he was perfectly sure and confident that otherwise he would have been a tip-top moral specimen.”

The strikingly modern aspect of this, to me, is not just the reliance on “tabular statements” to define social and moral ills, but also the reliance on coercion and behavioural engineering based on these tabular statements.

Quite what conclusion I draw from this quote I’m not yet sure. But there is some link between the aggregation of quantified selves as data trails within a larger quantitatively driven policy process and the excesses of utilitarianism that Dickens was satirising.

And you should (re)read “Hard Times”. Because it strikes home regarding the almost unnameable something that austerity-battered populations cling to that is almost the precise opposite of data-driven policy making.