I Am Learner

I am not taught. I learn.

The Learning Society: social and economic progress through education

by John Connell

learning-societyThe printing press sowed the seeds of social and economic progress, heralding a time when ‘change itself [became] the archetypal norm of social life’ (McLuhan). It then took another three centuries and more before the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment were able to reframe the concept of progress as no longer merely change-as-happenstance but rather as a conscious effort to transform society for the better. Change was no longer merely possible but desirable. Along with the notion of progress as positive transformation, the Scottish philosophers also propounded the notions of meritocracy and of our right to question authority. Out of these Enlightenment values came the possibility of imagining and creating a learning society, a society that recognised not simply the importance of learning what is and has been, but of what could be and what might be desirable. A learning society is a society that wants to learn how to learn, that respects science and that recognizes the need to question authority, and according to Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald in their new and important book – Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress – it is the basis for much of the economic growth that has occurred across the world since the late 18th century.

Stiglitz and Greenwald have produced a book that is primarily about economics. But it is also a book about education – not surprising, given its title. It is a book filled with detailed and specialized economic theory and analysis, but it is also a book that offers much to those whose primary interest is in the nature and importance of learning. As an educationist, I am interested in the possibility that this might well be the first book I have come across in more than three decades in the field that attempts to show how education is the single most important explanatory factor we have to consider in trying to understand the nature of economic growth and social progress globally.

The authors take as their starting point an approach to learning that comes out of microeconomics, one that relates primarily to improvements in a firm’s productivity and efficiency. But they take pains to make clear that they relate the kind of learning that goes on in the firm directly to the learning needs of the wider society too. Of particular interest to me, however, is that Stiglitz and Greenwald don’t talk about learning in the abstract, as if we all agree what learning is, and just leave it that. Instead, they promote a form of learning – one they believe is most fruitful for growth and prosperity in  a country – that is not the rote learning of the past, or even the dry academic learning that might happen in some elite institutions around the world and is being championed once again by some national governments:

Much of traditional economics focuses on education’s role in increasing human capital, the stock of knowledge embodied in individuals. It is typically measured by years of schooling. Our emphasis is quite different. Years spent on rote learning might (or might not) increase the stock of (even relevant) knowledge and, in that sense, increase productivity, at least temporarily, until that knowledge becomes obsolete. But such schooling would not necessarily increase the ability to learn – increasing capacities for lifelong learning – and could actually impede it, especially if, as part of such education, there is an attempt to inculcate ideas that are antithetical to science.

The authors believe that the Enlightenment represented a change in mindsets, to those that were receptive to the creation of a learning society and which, at the same time, offered a basis for scientific enquiry. Alongside this, ideas of human rights and democracy became natural bedfellows. They promote the idea that a more open society:

…generates more ideas, a flow of ‘mutations’ which provides not only excitement but the possibility of dynamic evolution

Stiglitz gave a very clear exposition of his ideas to the RSA in Scotland earlier this year and was happy to point to Scotland as a country that is actively seeking to create a learning society, one in which university education for instance is still free to all its citizens, and one that understands the benefits of striving to minimise inequalities in society while at the same time ensuring that rational thought and scientific enquiry will continue to trump the anti-science rhetoric we are seeing increasingly and worryingly in other, larger, advanced economies.

I sense that this could be an important book, and just as important to educational debate as it will be to economic thinking. The description of learning in the book is broad-brush but it is always thoughtful and always challenging. Its starting point in microeconomics will limit the willingness of some in education to take it seriously – that would be a mistake! I welcome the authors’ focus on a kind of learning that goes beyond rote learning, beyond the kind of learning that I have typified in the past as ‘smokestack schooling’.

For what it is worth, I believe that the kind of learning they (rightly) denigrate is certainly no longer tenable in the Knowledge Economy of today, but it endures obstinately nonetheless, and it was deemed good enough, by the logic of the industrial economy,  for most people for most of the past two centuries and more, through most of the industrial era and into the final decades of the twentieth century. The point now is to take these lessons and to apply them to the advanced economies with renewed vigour, but also to those countries around the world that are still struggling to develop economically. The Asian tiger economies thrived precisely because they were able to pay little heed to the so-called Washington Consensus in the period since the Second World War, and precisely because they focused on education as central to their development strategies. Sub-Saharan Africa, remaining dependent, as it has done, on aid from the West, has not been able to focus on learning to the same extent.

If this book can tilt the balance towards changing that focus in the developing world, and if it can more generally emphasise the critical importance not only of learning, but of the right kind of learning, to social and economic progress across the world, then this book on economics really could become one of the most important books on education in recent years!

Take the TWEE out of Tweeting: teaching, learning & technology

by John Connell

During a recent online debate, one of those undemanding messages that so many Twitter-inhabiting educators seem to love popped up on my TweetDeck and then popped up again and then again and again as more and more people retweeted it, until finally I was forced to mute the originator of the platitude just to make it go away.

It read:

Technology does NOT teach.


It is of course true that, just as bakers bake and dancers dance, teachers teach. Hard to disagree with, but hardly insightful. It is also true that teachers often don’t teach, and that can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the context and on the reasons for not teaching. Equally, some teachers teach badly – all teachers do at some points in their careers, surely – at which times it is not particularly helpful to beat the drum for their teaching.

So why, apart from its banality, did this particular example of the twee in tweeting annoy me?

It takes only a modicum of thought to realise that sometimes technology CAN teach, and often rather effectively. It is arguable that, where people learn from their interaction with technology with minimal or no human intervention, the technology might be said to be teaching them.

There are good examples and bad examples, just as there are good and bad teachers. Think of game-playing: much learning can be gleaned from computer games and online games. It would be churlish to try to argue that games do not teach. Think of programmed learning and the notorious teaching machines of old (and their software descendants in computer-based learning): they arose out of the reductionist swamp of behavioural psychology, but whether they managed it well or badly, they did teach. There are just so many examples where technology does indeed teach, sometimes in isolation, often as a helpful prosthetic to human teachers.

Of course, there’s no harm in admitting that, mostly, technology doesn’t teach. And sometimes, even like the best of teachers, when technology does teach it does so badly. The point is, none of this really gets us anywhere in terms of our educational thinking, does it? If the act of teaching by a teacher is the key, what happens when a teacher ‘teaches’ to an empty room? Not much other than the the teacher taking some pleasure form hearing his or her own voice uninterrupted. But put a purposeful learner in an empty room with a book or a connected device and some learning is a more than likely result.

It reminds me once again of Ron Burnett‘s paper, Learning to Learn in a Virtual World, in which he taught me the memorable phrase, the radical impossbility of teaching, a phrase and an argument that set me on the road to I Am Learner. Ron asks questions such as (to paraphrase heavily):

When teachers teach and learners learn, what is the nature of the causal link between the two, if any?

How does teaching produce learning?

Does teaching produce learning?

Is learning merely an accidental consequence of teaching?

The platitude, I’m afraid,  expresses a view of education, of teaching and learning, that is just unhelpful. It focuses on teaching as in some sense the direct cause of learning. It promotes the view, intentionally or otherwise, that the learner cannot learn without the intervention of a teacher. It is a view that, I would contend, is imbued with the centrality of formal education, the hegemony of the school and of the academy. And it is a view that, whether it likes it or not, deprecates any learning that does not come about as a result of teaching.

In today’s world, at this moment of interplay in education, where the role of the teacher is immeasurably more complex than it was in earlier and simpler times, when the teacher needs to bring all of his or her wisdom, experience and skills to bear to help learners to learn rather than simply to ‘teach’ in some simplistic sense of transferring ‘knowledge’ to the unknowing,  we do education no favours by  raising nice-but-vapid platitudes for the thoughtless to copy ad infinitum on Twitter or elsewhere.


The Persistent Fetish: the printed book in the digital age

by John Connell

persistentfetishThe book, as we have known and loved it for half a millennium and more, is an object of veneration for many. I am undeniably a bibliophile, and while it is most often the content of a book, or the promise of the title or author, or perhaps a recommendation or review, that leads me to buy it and read it, I am equally sure that the nature of the object itself plays a huge part in my love of books. The book – printed, bound, tactile, replete with promise – arguably is fetishized like no other object in history.

And rightly so, since it is the book that powered the Enlightenment, that gave us our universities, that enabled mass education and that propelled large parts of our world towards the many and varied attempts at democracy. Equally, of course, it is that same fetishization of the book that has played its part through the ages in sustaining so many variations on irrationality. We see this in the veneration of certain books as, somehow, the word of one or another of the many ‘one true’ gods that mankind has felt the need to invent across time and place. The book allows us to read and ponder the words of Plato or Popper, Krishnamurti or Kipling, Hitchens or Hemingway, Coetzee or Coelho – but it also allows those who would persuade us of their righteousness to pass off the words of mere mortals as sacred or immutable, and indeed the physical book containing those words as itself somehow hallowed. The book has been a component part of our humanity, in other words, since we first started to scratch on stones or slates.

So the book is both a powerful medium for the capture and transfer of knowledge, ideas and sentiments, and yet also a potent artefact in its own right, as an object in some sense distinct from the content within its bindings. From a cultural and educational perspective it is, of course, the content of books that should remain centrally important to us. The expression of ideas, thoughts, experience, human dilemmas and conjecture in the words on the page, the encapsulation of knowledge in text and image: it is these that have contributed, and continue to contribute, in so many different ways to the development of humankind. For all our fetishization of the book as an object, it is the elementary role of the book as a repository of knowledge, concepts and imagination that remains the critical ingredient of the form in its contribution to humanity’s search for enlightenment, validation and pleasure.

However, even in this increasingly digitized age, when we are so easily able to separate the ‘book as knowledge’ from the ‘book as object’, I believe that the printed book can continue to hold a place in our hearts. While the knowledge it encapsulates remains central, we should not in any way diminish the continuing significance of the physical object as something to be enjoyed too. This could be inspired by the aesthetics of the object itself; I hope that more and more writers will wish to see special editions of their books printed so that readers can make that choice between simply accessing the content on an e-book or purchasing a physical version of it that is a beautiful and desirable object in itself. I believe that more and more publishers will see a growing market for beautifully produced printed books that people want to own as much as to read.

In addition, however, I believe that those same digital technologies that seem to be threatening the physical book’s very existence will also begin (are already beginning) to be used increasingly to enhance the pleasure of reading from the printed page. Still in its early days, the potential  of deploying augmented reality technologies to heighten and amplify the experience of reading from the printed page will give us even more reasons to continue to print and purchase physical books. With a book in one hand and a smartphone in the other, the reader will be able to stop at any juncture, point their phone at the page and be taken off to look at the definitions or etymology of words, to see images and movies of places being described in the text, to bring still images to life in video or animation, to hear the author or a critic speak about the section being read, to exchange comments and notes with the community of readers of the same book all across the world, to delve into the original manuscript in the author’s hand (from pre-digital times most likely) in order to see how many attempts it took by the author to carve out that final phrasing, and a million other possibilities besides. And this will be true of any kind of printed objects, whether books, magazines, newspapers, store catalogues, brochures, whatever.

The purist, as is their right, will always want to stick with the final text and nothing else. But for many of us this powerful bringing together of the Gutenberg galaxy and the digital sphere will offer the possibility of ensuring that  the physical printed book can have a new lease of life.

So, between the book as a beautiful object of desire and the digital enhancement of the printed book, our enduring fetish for the book will persist, I am sure.


M-Learning Goes Mainstream

by John Connell


Each day, more than half a million new connections are made to the Internet. 500,000 people who were not on the Internet yesterday are today taking their first tentative steps onto the global network of networks. The majority of these new connections are being made with a mobile device of some kind, in most cases a cell phone. For every laptop or desktop currently being used to connect to the Internet there are two mobile devices being used to do the same. And of the 500,000 people connecting today, some 400,000 of them live in the developing world.

With between one third and one half of the world’s population already online (2.8 billion as of December 2013), most of them in the developed countries of the world, the greatest scope for continued growth in Internet use in the next few years will be in those parts of the world where a combination of relative under-development, an immature market for the large fixed-line telecoms operators, and therefore an as-yet-inadequate wired infrastructure, has propelled a massive expansion in wireless networks. Countries all around the world recognise the economic benefits of connectivity and this is driving growth in the deployment and usage of LTE (4G) networks at a rate of 250% year on year at the present time. There is no reason to think that this rate of expansion will slow down any time soon. Indeed with the Koreans already working on a 5G network amid claims that it will be ‘thousands of times faster’ than 4G, the mobile market globally is still in its infancy in so many respects.

M-Learning: An Emerging Phenomenon

While the growing mobile networks are already having an unmistakable impact on education around the world, mobile-learning is still fundamentally an emerging phenomenon. Much play has been made in some places, for instance, of the many and varied schemes to introduce tablets, e-readers, and even connected handheld gaming devices into the classroom. Some of these have been successful while others are more conspicuous by the hype surrounding them than by any proven effects on teaching and learning. But such schemes are, in my opinion, really only scratching the surface of m-learning. They have validity in their own right, of course, but they are for the most part simply attempts to extend the range of connected devices for students from desktops and laptops to devices that are small, versatile, easy-to-carry and, yes, more mobile. So while they do have the capacity to enable access to learning in a greater variety of settings, whether in school or out of school, than with desktops, and even laptops, their mobility capability is by no means always the pivotal factor in their deployment.

Three Sets of Affordances

Truly effective m-learning derives, I feel, from three related sets of affordances that mobile networks give to education, but more precisely from the compound effect of the three affordances when taken together. Two of the affordances are probably not hard to discern. The first is that they allow virtual teaching and learning to take place anywhere and at any time. The second is that they offer access to online education to billions of people worldwide who have not previously been able to enjoy that access.

The third affordance offered to education by the expansion of mobile networks to so many more people across the world is that having a cell phone or any other small connected device in your hand, no matter where you are in the world, gives the learner the potential to establish a very high level of control over their own learning. Of course, that has been true in many ways since the first desktop computers were linked up to the Internet, and has been all the more true as laptops became smaller, cheaper, lighter and more mobile over the past couple of decades, but the ability now to enjoy the same level of connectedness with a truly mobile handheld device has taken this process to a new level. Combined with the growing trend to render websites fully responsive, by deploying HTML5’s capabilities to produce sites that are geared to run on low-powered, small-form devices such as phones and tablets, the mobile data networks are now putting m-learning in a very interesting position indeed.

Is the Tipping Point Coming for M-Learning?

When we take these affordances together, along with the progress towards a truly responsive Web, it is clear to me that mobile learning, across its many manifestations (with some still to be formed and defined, no doubt), is about to take off in a big way. The combination of trends, factors and affordances is creating the perfect social and technological ecosystem for virtual learning to spread far beyond the larger desk-bound and lap-bound devices that have dominated for two decades to the kinds of devices that fit in a pocket or are so easily carried and used anywhere, any time.

Two things will happen now. One is the glaringly obvious one that, in the shorter term, and worldwide, providers of content, courses, and programmes of study, both free and paid-for, will increasingly customise and configure their products for the mobile learning market – many are already doing so, of course, but the volume of this will surge hugely over the next couple of years and beyond. Content and course providers, particularly those trying to monetize their products, will be seeking to grab whatever segments of the market they can, and we can be sure that providers will spring up in every part of the world, some looking to build international markets, others happy to focus on regions, on language-communities, on individual countries and even on specific disciplines that will cut across all such geographical fault lines . The effect will be to extend massively the educational choices available to learners all over the world.

The second thing that I believe will happen will take longer to realize. That is that, as this ‘market’ expands, and as learners everywhere and anywhere begin to recognize the sheer scale and spread of what is becoming available to them, they will begin to focus less on accessing or buying discrete ‘packages’ of learning products aimed at them, and more on simply picking and choosing what they need from the torrent of material flowing past them as they seek to learn exactly what they want to learn and not what someone else has decreed they should learn. Smart learners will become skilled in disassembling the packages offered and taking just the bits they want, and then creating their own programmes of study from all the options in front of them. It is a process that will at once thrive on the massive expansion in mobile-ready content online and also render the market in mobile-ready content much more complex and unpredictable than many of the players in the market would wish it to be.

M-Learning in the Developing World

Where people live, whether they want to or can afford to pay for formal educational offerings, what language(s) they want to learn in, how much they require formal accreditation, how systems of informal accreditation (such as digital badges) expand in the years ahead, and a host of other questions pertinent to the individual learner, will all encourage and stimulate learners increasingly to take control of their own learning. This will be a global phenomenon, of course, but I believe that it will be in the developing world that the effects of these transformations will be most profound: learners in the developing world have a hunger for learning that has not been provided for in the past because the means simply weren’t there for its ‘delivery’. Just as the mobile networks themselves are expanding most rapidly in the developing world, so it will be paralled by a rapid escalation of people taking advantage of those networks for their own education.

M-Learning is about to go mainstream, but in ways that the providers of mobile education will find very hard to predict. Providers will need to consider very carefully the combination of affordances described above if they are to match their strategies successfully to the changing times and changing circumstances over the next few years.

Reading in the Mobile Era

by John Connell

Reading in the Mobile Era

Reading in the Mobile Era

I have been reading through the findings of a great report published earlier this year by UNESCO: Reading in the Mobile Era. I am working on a longer post on mobile learning more generally, which I will publish in the next day or two, but I want to promote this report and offer its own summary of findings.

  1. Mobile reading opens up new pathways to literacy for marginalized groups, particularly women and girls, and others who may not have access to paper books.
  2. People use mobile devices to read to children, thereby supporting literacy acquisition and other forms of learning.
  3. People seem to enjoy reading more and read more often when they use mobile devices to access text.
  4. People read on mobile devices for identifiable reasons that can be promoted to encourage mobile reading.
  5. Most mobile readers are young, yet people of various ages are capable of using mobile technology to access long-form reading material. More can be done to encourage older people to use technology as a portal to text.
  6. Current mobile readers tend to have completed more schooling than is typical.
  7. There appears to be a demand for mobile reading platforms with text in local languages, level-appropriate text and text written by local authors.

Definitely worth a read if you have an interest in the subject. That last finding is so important!

Chomsky: Right and Wrong on Education

by John Connell

In the video, Chomsky speaks on three critical questions: on the purpose of education, on the role and place of technology in education, and on the conflicting views that regard education either as a cost or as an investment. I may come back to the latter two questions in later posts, but here I am interested in his thoughts on the purpose of education. On this, he asks:

Do you train for passing tests or do you train for creative inquiry?

Noam Chomsky’s preference is of course for the latter, which he regards as education, while the former he sees as one form, amongst many, of indoctrination. For Chomsky, education is about:

…[learning] to inquire and create, to search the riches of the past and to try to internalise the parts that are significant to you, and to carry that quest forward for understanding in your own way…

He believes that:

…education is about helping the learner to learn on their own…

The divide that he posits between education and indoctrination is a real one and his focus on the learner learning on their own is one a strongly agree with. However, as so many do when they speak of education, I believe that Chomsky misses an important point, namely that education and indoctrination, by his own definitions, are both processes that are done ‘to’ people, although they come at the needs of the student from diametrically opposed philosophies and, sometimes (though not always), radically different moralities. As such, and despite their differences, both take the act of teaching as their starting point: in education, the teacher is there to help facilitate learning for the student, while in indoctrination, the teacher (or instructor) is there to spoon-feed (or force-feed) information or skills to the student.

In my view, educators too often underestimate, and indoctrinators are usually unable to acknowledge, that any learning that occurs as a result of their activities is entirely down to the willingness or otherwise of the student to learn at all. In education, by working with the grain of the student’s needs and motivations, by engaging actively with the student, the level of willingness to learn what is being taught increases. With indoctrination, there can be little or no such engagement, and little or no acknowledgement of the student’s needs and motivations, and therefore the willingness of the student to learn what is being taught decreases. However, even with indoctrination the student will sometimes actually want to learn some or all of what is being taught, or might even acquire some ‘learnings’ that bear little relation to what is being taught because of their personal engagement with the material and content of the courses. So, even indoctrination can result in the learner learning something useful, although often it will not be what the indoctrinator wanted the learning to be.

In other words, even where information or skills, or any morsels of knowledge, are delivered in a manner that might be construed as indoctrinating, it is always ultimately the learner, consciously or unconsciously, who controls what he or she learns. It is quite simply never the teacher (no matter what the teacher believes). But the same is equally true of ‘education’ in Chomsky’s definition – that is the awkward and inconvenient truth at the heart of any educational or instructional process.

Education works by bringing together an intricate web of relationships, intentions, motivations, cognitions, and hope (lots of hope!). It is always, at some level, a negotiated relationship between at least two parties; when one side of that relationship, the teacher or instructor or indoctrinator, attempts to facilitate or deliver or enforce learning, it is always the ‘recipient’ of that teaching or instruction or indoctrination who has the final say in what actually is learned or assimilated or grasped. So even in a situation that can be deemed to be fundamentally one of indoctrination, the target of indoctrination is able to take the reified, commodified, packaged instruction being spoon-fed to him and through the bewildering, perplexing inherently personal process that is learning, can construct something valid and meaningful out of the inferior fare.

There is a central and abiding fallacy at the heart of education, namely that what is taught is what is learned, that what the teacher teaches is what the student learns. Education systems around the world today rest, as they have done for much of their existences, on an illusory foundation, and I contend that much of what is wrong, and what has been wrong for so long, with formal education arises from the enduring and mistaken belief that the imparting of knowledge by the teacher somehow equates with and leads directly to the acquisition of knowledge by the learner. It does not.

Human beings learn through their interaction with others, with ideas, with information, with the world at large,  but ultimately we construct our own knowledge, we make our own connections between fields, ideas, concepts and information sources, we create and shape our own learning. The intervention of the teacher in this process is critically important and valuable (and indeed, an understanding of the true nature of learning makes the role of the teacher more critical and more complex, not less), but at no point in the interaction of teacher and student does the learner in any simple sense ‘learn’ what the teacher ‘teaches’. When we start to appreciate the true nature of learning, the complex edifices of curricula, pedagogy, assessment, accreditation, teacher education and professional development, as well as the overbearing structures of institutional management and educational organization, start to crumble before our eyes. 

Only when we acknowledge this fallacy can we begin to think logically about the true purpose of education.

PISA’s Passive Aggressive Assault on Education

by John Connell

Gary Younge wrote in a recent Guardian article about the global economy’s swift, and harsh, response to the election of President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil in 2002. Elected on an anti-poverty and wealth re-distribution platform, the sort of agenda usually dismissed as ‘populist’ by the Right, Lula came to office with a mandate to tear up an agreement with the IMF and to free the Brazilian economy from the shackles placed on it by the international economic order. As Younge wrote:

….on the way to Lula’s inauguration the invisible hand of the market tore up his electoral promises and boxed the country around the ears for its reckless democratic choice. In the three months between his winning and being sworn in, the currency plummeted by 30%, $6bn in hot money left the country, and some agencies gave Brazil the highest debt-risk ratings in the world. “We are in government but not in power,” said Lula’s close aide, Dominican friar Frei Betto. “Power today is global power, the power of the big companies, the power of financial capital.

The limited ability of national governments to pursue any agenda that has not first been endorsed by international capital and its proxies is no longer simply the cross they have to bear; it is the cross to which we have all been nailed. The nation state is the primary democratic entity that remains. But given the scale of neoliberal globalisation it is clearly no longer up to that task.

I detected a resonance or two from Younge’s article when I came across a recent piece from the always-interesting Yong Zhao about how Shanghai is considering whether to have anything more to do with PISA and withdrawing from the 2015 round of data gathering by the OECD. While the hand of PISA is by no means an invisible one, nor is it nakedly vindictive in the way that the international economic order can choose to be, it is in my opinion nonetheless a heavy hand that is doing more harm than good to education across the globe. Shanghai is a case in point.

Education officials in Shanghai feel that PISA, with its crude dependence on test scores, does not give them the  deeper and more meaningful levels of evaluation that other methodologies can offer. An example they offer is that their consistently high PISA score masks the fact that their education system has relied on excessive amounts of homework for its young people:

….teachers in Shanghai spend 2 to 5 hours designing, reviewing, analyzing, and discussing homework assignments every day…Teachers’ estimate of homework load is much lower than actual experiences of students and parent. Although the homework is not particularly difficult, much of it is mechanical and repetitive tasks that take lots of time. Furthermore, teachers are more used to marking the answers as ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ while students are hoping their teachers can help them open their minds and point out their problems.

Shanghai is working its way towards what it believes is a much better system of evaluation, known as Green Evaluation, a framework that demotes test scores from being the only criterion to just one amongst ten. It brings factors such as moral development, creativity, psychological and physical health, development of individual potential and talent, and much more into consideration. It even looks at questions of ‘academic burden’, including class time, time spent on homework, sleep time, quality of instruction and overall academic pressure (such a far cry from the Gradgrind mentality of Gove and his acolytes who want to keep on increasing such pressures on our friends in England). It will also help Shanghai move away from the pretence that there can be any truly meaningful international comparison of education systems. PISA can only promote that pretence by its reductionist focus on test scores, and every additional step taken to measure (where measurement is even possible) and analyze the much deeper and broader criteria that must surely be included if we really want to understand an education system multiplies exponentially the complexity involved in making international comparisons.

Where the global economic order that assailed Brazil immediately following Lula’s election in 2002 (and just one amongst so many similar examples in recent times) was deliberately and aggressively malicious, the seemingly-gentler hand of PISA is much closer to the passive end of the aggression continuum. It has in its own way, however,  been just as effective in pushing its coarse agenda by the simple fact that so many governments around the world have chosen to buy in to its reductive methodology. Scotland is unfortunately one of the countries that currently plays the PISA game. Every two years, governments, schools and the media get caught up in a meaningless game of comparison, and every year the same pointless exhortations can be heard around the world pushing schools to do ‘better’ so that countries can climb the ladders of success at the expense of those passing them on their way down the slippery snakes.

But, if more and more jurisdictions can take the potential lead of Shanghai and tell PISA they are no longer interested in playing their absurd and valueless game, education internationally will be all the better for that.


Australia’s Lost Network: Harbour Bridge or Dugout Canoe?

by John Connell

Australia’s then Labour Government (now Labor Party since 2012!) launched its ambitious and far-reaching plans for a National Broadband Network (NBN) in 2010. However, since the right wing Liberal Party won the election in 2013, its Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has killed off any hopes that Australia could join the 21st Century any time soon in terms of its national infrastructure.

As Mary Hamilton writes in this week’s New Statesman, even during the election campaign…..

…Turnbull framed the Internet as a tool for entertainment, not a matter of life and death. The NBN was no longer a crucial infrastructure project: it was an extravagant purchase that Australia could ill afford.

Since winning the election, Turnbull has downgraded the NBN: no longer will they install high-speed optical fibre to every home, institution and business. Instead the initiative merely takes fibre to local cabinets, leaving the ‘final mile’ to Telstra’s ageing and decrepit copper installations to attempt to deliver some measure of broadband. It simply is not up to the task in many parts of the country. With average download speeds of 14.5Mbps and, critically, average upload speeds of just 2.9Mbps, too low to enable, for example, good desktop video conferencing links (using Skype for instance), Australia is now slipping well down the international broadband league tables.

The NBN might have been another Sydney Harbour Bridge: a dazzling feat of design and engineering admired around the world. Instead, its future looks shaky and its eventual usefulness increasingly unclear.

I regularly meet with friends and colleagues in Australia on Skype, on Facebook and on other similar platforms, and the deficiencies of their infrastructure are all too obvious most of the time. It is such a shame when I consider that some of the most forward-thinking and radical movers and shakers in education worldwide are to be found in that country, a community that has long led the way on so many fronts in the global educational conversation. Without the core infrastructure to take education forward, Australia’s education system will struggle to match the vision of its impressive cadre of thinkers and doers in this field.

Is digital pedagogy a meaningful construct?

by John Connell

Does the term ‘digital pedagogy’ have any validity?

It depends, of course, upon the assumptions we make about pedagogy generally and therefore on the definition of terms that arises out of those assumptions. The first problem, for me, is that too many see pedagogy as a universal category rather than as a category that needs to be re-defined as we go along to meet the needs of changing conditions and the shifting technological basis for education.

Intuitively, I cannot bring myself to agree that pedagogy is a universal category. For someone to convince me that I am wrong in this, they would have to demonstrate (and not simply assert) that every single form of pedagogy used in the context of the many social and collaborative technologies available to teachers and learners today has also been used, and indeed is also being used, effectively and successfully in contexts that are devoid of digital technologies.

As Stephen Downes put it so succinctly:

…if you’re using the same pedagogy with a stick and sand as you are using with a high-speed computer network, you really don’t understand teaching and learning.

Many teachers are, we know, using digital technologies simply to enhance or to shore up pedagogies that are no different from the pedagogies they have deployed at other times and in more traditional settings, and perhaps throughout their teaching careers. But I believe that some teachers are using such technologies in ways that cannot be traced back in any simplistic way to a pre-existing set of pedagogies.

Someone might argue, for example, that collaboration is collaboration is collaboration. In other words, they feel that, like good melodies, there are no new forms of collaboration under the sun. They might argue that the forms of collaboration enabled by social technologies are simply already-existing forms of collaboration that are different perhaps only in scale or in external appearance. The fundamentals of collaboration are the same today as they were in the 1950s, as they were in the 19th century, as they were at any time in history. That would be an interesting argument to see built and sustained.

I, for one, doubt that this is the case, but I would – genuinely – like to see someone try to argue the case.

So, taking that one example as a starting point – the nature of collaboration – we can certainly choose to dismiss the notion of digital pedagogy if we feel we can argue that the fundamentals of collaboration have not changed over time, that digital collaboration is only quantitatively different (perhaps) in some way from all previous kinds of social collaboration.

If on the other hand, we feel that the very nature of collaboration develops and changes through time, and that we are witnessing the development of some forms of collaboration that have never existed before, made possible by digital technologies, then, logically, we have to take the notion of digital pedagogy seriously (even if, by the way, we choose to call it something else).

Of course, pedagogy is about much much more than collaboration. We know that. I know that. But I’m using this one bite-sized corner of the extensive territory that is pedagogy to illustrate the kinds of arguments that those on either side of the debate must be prepared to make and prove. We could do the same by looking at other corners of the territory, such as the nature of curricular content, the evolution of teaching strategies, methods of instruction, and so on. Those who deny the existence of digital pedagogy must be able to demonstrate (and again not simply assert) that these are all universal categories that have not changed in their fundamentals through succeeding historical and social epochs.

Equally, of course, those who agree with me have to be able to demonstrate (and not simply assert) that some of these pedagogical fundamentals are intrinsically different from any pre-digital pedagogies. For instance, genuinely collaborative learning can no longer be contained within the more traditional classroom-constrained relationship between teacher and student. Collaborative learning cannot simply be about collaboration between teacher and student, but must be able to encompass genuine collaboration between students in the learning group, between a student and other people or resources pulled into the mix, and indeed must also be able to include a wide range of informal ‘learnings’ that can happen as a consequence of the more formal process of teaching/learning, but that might have very little connection to the expressed aims and purposes of the original planned teaching. The sheer richness of potential interactions, not all of them within the ken or the control of the teacher, necessitates a high level of flexibility on the part of the teacher (and of the student) and must, I feel, incorporate pedagogical elements that simply do not exist in a more traditional, classroom-constrained context.

So, fundamentally, I feel that there is some mileage in the notion of digital pedagogy. I feel that there are, within the broad definition of pedagogy, a number of significant components that: a) have changed, and will continue to change, to suit shifts in the technological basis of society, and b) that these changes in society itself actually start to change what it means to be educated, what it means to be literate in today’s world.

When we start to recognise (IF we start to recognise) the changing nature of what it means to be educated in the 21st century, then we have to be willing, I feel, to think anew about pedagogy in the context of thee digital and networking technologies.

Schooling: “the pyramid of classified packages”

by John Connell

Schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends on knowing that secret; that secrets can be known only in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets. An individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags.

So wrote Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society. Illich’s solution was more nuanced than simply deschooling society, by which he meant extinguishing the compulsory aspect of schooling: he also sought to build what he termed learning networks:

What are needed are new networks, readily available to the public and designed to spread equal opportunity for learning and teaching.

But Illich wrote this in the pre-digital era, when his focus was on Latin America, and when the only technologies he could envisage using for such networks were cassette tape recorders. He saw these  as tools for free expression, unlike TV, which he felt gave the bureaucrats “…the power to sprinkle the continent with institutionally produced programs which they-or their sponsors–decide are good for or in demand by the people.”

With hindsight, his views were ideologically sound, visionary and idealistic, but perhaps technologically naive. Today however, Illich’s vision of learning networks are being realised in multiple guises across the Web, some more useful and open than others. Given the profound technological shift that is already making his concept of the learning network viable, it is interesting to look back at how Illich sought to categorize the different approaches he envisaged that would enable the learner to gain access to whatever educational resource they wanted and needed. He offered four categories:

  • Reference Services to Educational Objects – these facilitate access to things or processes used for formal learning;
  • Skill Exchanges – these permit persons to list their skills, the conditions under which they are willing to serve as models for others who want to learn these skills, and the addresses at which they can be reached;
  • Peer-Matching – a communications network which permits persons to describe the learning activity in which they wish to engage, in the hope of finding a partner for the inquiry;
  • Reference Services to Educators-at-Large – who can be listed in a directory giving the addresses and self-descriptions of professionals, paraprofessionals, and free-lancers, along with conditions of access to their services.

It is clear from this short list that Illich recognized learning as a fundamental human activity that everyone could and should engage in, both as teachers and learner: everyone wants to learn, and everyone should be enabled to teach whatever skill or knowledge they can offer to others. At the same time, he wanted to make it possible for those wishing to learn a subject or skills to find those able to teach that subject or skill. Equally, he saw the need for the mirror image of this learner/teacher relationship, by proposing a system that would enable those with skills and knowledge to teach to find those who want to learn from them. Of course, given the limitations of pre-digital technology, such a relationship could only be either face-to-face or asynchronous (for instance, by the teacher sending tapes to a learner).

Given that such limitations no longer exist, the limitations of Illich’s four approaches also becomes apparent. However, the core premiss of these approaches stands, I would suggest. The logic of his approaches becomes obvious when you consider what he saw as the three central purposes of education (something I have quoted more than once before, both here on the blog and in many keynotes and presentations over the years):

A good educational system should have three purposes:

  • it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives;
  • it should empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them;
  • it should furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.

We all sit on the shoulders of giants, and Illich was a giant amongst the giants of education.