Forecast for Education

I had the privilege of attending the TUANZ Telecommunications day event in Wellington yesterday, along with around 250 people from a broad range of telecommunications leaders from both the industry and public service sectors. It was a great opportunity to see and hear about what is happening at a national and international level in terms of the development of IT solutions, in particular, the roll-out of ultra-fast broadband (UFB), and how this is providing benefits to the sector groups involved and creating opportunities at both a local and national level. While the event wasn’t targeted at educators, education certainly was a focus of many people’s thinking when it came to the benefits of the strategic roll-out of UFB – including Dr Taylor Reynolds from the OECD and Steven Joyce, NZ’s minister of communications.

I’d been invited to share a perspective on what all this means for education, and my presentation and notes appear below…

I used the metaphor of a ‘cloudy’ future for education because of the way it represents the future ‘boundary-less’ nature of education, both technically and pedagogically. The physical structure and location of a school will become less important, with emphasis shifting to how that school ‘fits’ within the network of educational service provision. Students may continue to turn up at a physical school for all or part of their school day, but as far as their learning is concerned they will consider themselves a part of a learning network.

This may sound a rather outlandish vision to some, but the drivers and vision for this have been with us for more than 20 years – it’s just that now the enablers are catching up to where we can begin to see how it can be achieved.

From a technical perspective I referred to the overwhelming issues schools are facing in terms of the total cost of ownership of IT – everything from the investment in hardware, software and infrastructure, to the cost of support, updates and licensing etc. This is not to mention the ever changing nature of the investment itself – including the demand for support of internet capable mobile technologies (as opposed to location-bound desktops) and the future of a network of things, the implications of which have yet to be considered for schools.

The cloud (and I used the term very loosely to embrace everything from the concept of virtualisation, co-location and global cloud provision – anything that enables schools to move the IT off-site really) provides potential for the following solutions…

  • Desktop virtualsiation
  • Software as a service
  • Server co-location
  • Online support
  • Ubiquitous access – any time, anywhere, any device
  • Backup and fail-over
  • Disaster recovery
  • Data security

From a pedagogical perspective, schools are facing increasing pressure in terms of catering for the diverse needs of students. It is no longer acceptable to treat groups of students as a heterogeneous cohort – defined by age. Face with the demands from students to provide access to the breadth of subject choices they want, and to personalise the learning experience for each individual, the existing structures of schools are being challenged – and to try and resolve this with a traditional mindset ends up seeing demands for more staff (a scarce resource anyway), more buildings (requiring more physical space and more dollars), and more resources (at significant cost, often for a very small group of learners, and which may become out of date very quickly.) On top of this are the demands for individualised assessment through the learning process (not just at the end), and the desire to maintain a record of an individual student’s learning through their learning lifetime.

I introduced the concept of disintermediation, a concept developed in the world of economics and business, but now finding its way into education as we consider the potential benefits of separating out the various components of the educational process (planning, teaching, resources, assessment, support etc) and enabling access to source for each. (Bill St Arnaud commented on this yesterday following a post in the New York times about disintermediation in the tertiary environment.)

I referred to ‘cloud’ solutions for education – including the use of video conferencing and virtual schooling to enable access to curriculum choices and to subject matter experts, while remaining in the geographic location of choice. I referred to the NZ instance of the virtual learning network as an example of this happening already on a growing scale.

I spoke about the development of local schools “loops”, referring to the development of a National Education Network in NZ, and to the London Grid for Learning as an example of this internationally. In my view, these will provide the ‘tipping point’ for a transformation of our educational service provision in the future.

I also spoke of how a network of UFB will enable a smart use of data – something that will enable us to start thinking about futures data modelling in the education system, allowing us to be more precise in planning for new school buildings (where appropriate), anticipating staffing needs, providing a more timely response in terms of funding etc. It also has huge implications in terms of our assessment processes – causing us to rely less on end of year assessments, and focusing more on formative processes that are data-driven, informed by national means and cohort referencing, and pointing to next steps of development (instead of simply labelling the learner and leaving it to them or their teacher to think about what next).

It was a lot to squeeze into 25 minutes – but I did get there and managed to end with a reference to what I believe is the major stumbling block we face – and that isn’t the hardware or infrastructure – or even funding. It’s in our minds. We need to make sure we avoid the notion of horseless carriage thinking (thanks William Horton) as we strategically plan for and adopt these new technologies. We have to make sure that our adoption of the new doesn’t simply become a ‘tack-on’ to what we’ve known in the past. We are talking about true transformation here, not a tinkering with what we currently have – and we have to be prepared to embrace the futures that emerge before us as the implications unfold – just as they did when the first motorcars were invented!

ADDENDUM: Telecommunications Review have published their ‘top ten from telco day‘ summary of the day.

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