We all do it. Give me a platform, and I can be as arrogant as the next man. Tell me I am an expert, and ten minutes later I am telling you what to do. This is a harmless facet of most conferences, but in meetings about education it has a particularly nasty side effect. We are not just harmlessly telling our fellow professionals what to do, but prescribing remedial medicine in the only place that can save our world – the education of our children. Before starting a speech in this area we need to take a long drink of Essence of Humility!

Perhaps limping along on a stick with a bad back proved a levelling experience, but I found at the opening day agenda of the ELIG (European Learning Industry Group) Annual Conference in London on Thursday a level of smugness which might have typified the English at their arrogant worst, but which was unexpected in an international body combining expertise from across the entire continent. This was certainly untypical of their meetings: I have supported them from their foundation 12 years ago since I believe strongly that all components of the education industry need to sit together and talk. The nature of a networked society means exchange of roles and consolidation of different supply chains, so the more voices we have around the table the better the outcomes for the eventual beneficiaries – the learners – upon whom all our futures depend. And I shall continue advocacy for ELIG despite this meeting, in the hope that we get things better over the next decade.

It might have been the opening speaker who set the unfortunate tone. Adrian Wooldridge, Management Editor at the Economist, is a very considerable expert himself, as a journalist and commentator. As one of those speakers who keynote from the “I am not actually an expert in education myself but here is my plain man’s view of what has gone wrong and what we should put right…” viewpoint, he tended to sound more like an under-briefed politician than like someone with an illuminating angle of expertise. His theme, that the role of the teacher is sacrosanct and effective education can be aided by machines but always depends eventually upon what can be passed from a human teacher to a learner, may, as he said, have been formed by his own experience at Balliol and All Souls. But, he said, while his own university had only been founded in the eleventh century, the true model for education was Plato and Aristotle.

What the delegates from Pearson or IBM or Intel or several younger European universities in the audience made of this I could not tell. But it does not hold out much hope in a world where teaching is not a one on one or one on two tutorial experience. It sounds vaguely insulting in a country where classroom sizes now move firmly back over 30 as a result of cutbacks. And it sounds hugely arrogant in a world where the only hope that many will have of any form of educational achievement will be on a digital network.

But it could have been the following speaker, Chris Dede, Professor of Learning Technologies at Harvard, who confirmed the tone. No one listening could have doubted the level of expertise here. Professor Dede speaks with massive authority in his field and produced useful illumination on a whole range of issues. But, as a Professor at Harvard, he knows only too well that we have got everything wrong, that no one has ever acted on the evidence that he and his peers have produced, and that no one ever will. So much of the experimentation with new forms is mostly misguided and eventually doomed to failure – and MOOCs are a classic example of this. Shortly afterwards he was joined by a panel of policy makers and entrepreneurs, and reverted to this critical line. How could it be, they agreed, exchanging smug smiles of superior wisdom, that no one had noted that this business model was a failure? How could it be, they lamented, that so much money had been invested and spent on such chancy, get-rich-quick adventures in education?

As the panel turned into a bonding exercise for a group who knew what policies should be adopted and how the world might be better organized and regulated for the education of the unwashed masses, I began to reflect on how far we had strayed – in this conference room and in the industry at large – from the real nature of education in a networked society. We – the experts, the professors, the journalists, the regulators, the businessmen – are still trying to prescribe, to push onto the learner the shape and structure of learning. Yet we have always known that learning is something you pull towards you. Secretly we all know that we learn best what we want to learn, that curricula and examinations are less effective than desire and learning hunger. And we also know that much of our most effective learning is acquired from fellow-learners – it is a deeply collaborative process.

In a networked society, for the first time in history, pull is stronger than push in education. What is remarkable about MOOCs is not failing business models – it is the millions and millions of people who signed up all over the world, and are still doing so, and will continue to do so until we can satisfy them more effectively with better learning experiences. And whether the experience contains video, powerpoint, remote group collaboration, scarce live teacher resources online or anything else is not important at all. The network is not only pull-dominated, but it is, in its very nature, iterative. MOOCs are version 1.1: before ELIG meets again, they will have re-iterated and changed. The joy of the world we are now moving into is that it is deeply user – sensitive, and success comes to those who tweak and change in ways that users recognize as beneficial – to them. So come on, Professors of Education and influential, opinion forming Journalists, join us in the networked self-educating society! But there I am, prescribing for others again. I just hope they encounter a MOOC one day that makes all these things clear.


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1 Comment so far

  1. T.J. Elliott on September 23, 2014 05:59

    Well said, david.

    John Seely Brown’s ‘Pull’ points made in his co-authored book of that name come to mind.

    ELIG sounds like a missed opp’ty for the kind of collaboration necessary to engender what is needed now