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Category Archives: STEAM

EduTech Africa 2018 – Moving Beyond the Technology to Make a Difference

Over the last decade or so the focus of the ed tech conferences I have attended has shifted increasingly away from the technology itself towards what we can do to transform education. In the early years it was as if ed tech enthusiasts were like magpies, dazzled by every shiny new tool. Some of that sense of wonder still exists, of course, and is healthy. We need to be alive to new possibilities as technology evolves. But over the years we have learned to become more discriminating as we found what tools actually worked in our classrooms, and learned not to try to do too much at one time. The focus started shifting towards pedagogy, towards how to use the tools effectively. Behind this was always some thought as to the significance of the impact of technology on education. Common refrains have been the development of 21st Century Skills, personalised learning, a movement away from teacher-centred to student-centred approaches, problem-based learning, what technologies will disrupt education and learning based on the burgeoning field of neuroscience. The overall sense has been one of promise, that technology has the potential to make teaching and learning more effective, and that education will become transformative in liberating humanity from a model  grounded in the factory system and a mechanised reproduction of knowledge and skills. This year’s conference was no different in content although the technologies have changed somewhat. The focus has shifted towards Artificial Intelligence, robotics and coding, especially how to involve women in STEM and how to infuse computational thinking across the curriculum. However, this is the first time the sense I have is not one of advocacy, but of militancy. Speakers from the world of work were united and adamant in a condemnation of schooling itself. A clear preference for extra-curricular learning and the futility of academic qualifications was presented stridently. Employers, we were told, prefer people able to solve problems. If any learning is required it can be delivered, just-in-time at the point of need, online via MOOCs. Tertiary qualifications should be modular and stackable, acquired over time when required to solve real world problems. Educators endorsed this stance stressing personalised learning and the use of Artificial Intelligence and even real-time feedback from brain activity. The sense was one of an urgent need for a curriculum based on problem solving rather than subject disciplines. If you need some Maths to solve a problem you can get it online. You don’t need to study Maths divorced from real world imperatives. The very idea of tertiary institutions is clearly under massive assault, and it cannot be long before they come for secondary schools as well. What scares me about this is not that I don’t agree that learning should be problem-based at some level, or that degree programmes should not be using MOOCs and blended models to achieve greater modularity and be more student-driven. What scares me is what we lose by doing that. My fears are based on two premises. Firstly, I believe that knowledge should be pursued for knowledge sake rather than for the needs of the world of work alone. Of course our education should prepare us for employment or entrepreneurship. To argue that it shouldn’t is folly. But knowledge has its own trajectory and logic. Mathematical knowledge, for example, represents a body of knowledge bounded by rules and procedures. It forms a coherent system which cannot be broken up into bite-sized chunks. Can one quickly study calculus without studying basic algebra just because you need calculus to solve a problem? Historical knowledge is not just about reading up on Ancient Sumeria on Wikipedia quickly. Historical knowledge is founded on a system of evidentiary inquiry within a narrative mode of explanation. I worry that just-in-time knowledge will lack a solid enough base. If we erode the autonomy of the universities and do away with academic research, what happens to knowledge? It will become shallow and facile. Secondly, I believe that the discovery model of learning is deeply flawed. Of course, if left to our own devices, following our curiosity, we can discover much. It is a fundamental learning principle. But it is not very efficient. There is no earthly reason why teaching should be ditched. Being told something by someone else is as fundamental a learning principle as learning something for yourself. It is an effect of socialised learning. We learn from each other. Teaching is an ancient and noble profession, and there seems no reason to ditch it now. The scholar’s dilemma is that it is unusual to discover anything unless you know it is there, and this requires guides and mentors. The world we live in is complex and vast and we need a working knowledge of a great deal. Without extensive teaching, it is difficult to see how we could acquire the knowledge we need. I would argue that we need a broad-based liberal education, focusing on critical thinking and problem solving, which gives us a grounding in Mathematics, the Sciences, the Arts and Humanities. At this stage, after a first degree, say, the best approach could well be just-in-time content delivery delivered online. Just because technology can disrupt education doesn’t mean it should. Teachers have been very conservative in their adoption of new technologies, and I think this is a good thing. Education and knowledge are just too important to change willy nilly. We need to be certain that we are not destroying our evolutionary advantage, our ability to think, simply because we can.
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EduTech Africa 2018 – Day 2 of Just-in-time Learning

 

Dr Neelam Parmar

On the second day of the Conference the focus seemed to shift from what schools should be doing, to the nature of learning itself. Dr Maria Calderon took us on a whistlestop tour of what neuroscience has to tell us about learning. Key to understanding this is the surprising role played by emotion in mediating learning experiences. If the amygdala is too excited learning is blocked. Ian Russell then stressed the importance of changing the way learning happens in schools so that it reflects how the world now works and students are better prepared for the world of work. Learning needs to be flexible and delivered just in time. Employers are interested in your skills not your qualifications. The days of students earning a degree and then entering the world of work are gone. Mark Lester amplified this idea by stressing how tertiary learning is increasingly blended and modular. Life-long learning is the new norm.

Dr Neelam Parmar presented us with a model for weaving together technology and pedagogy. Choices around technology and pedagogy are driven by decisions around curriculum and finding a match between schools and the world of work. She left us with an image of the accelerated use of AI in schools: robots in China that monitor student attention and nudge them awake when they fall asleep.

It is in many ways an image which encapsulates the future and its possibilities. Technology can deliver a more personalised, seamless tracking of educational achievement, much of it delivered online. Students of all ages can learn what they need to learn just in time, building their own curriculum. The curriculum can be based on the task, the challenge at hand. And yet there is a danger, a danger that we will lose the ability to discriminate out what it is that is important to learn. The dilemma of self directed study is that you can’t know what you need to learn until you have learned it.

There is a strong movement away from traditional school disciplines, towards problem based learning, and I believe this is a mistake. Knowledge is coherent because it is bounded by a field. If it becomes nothing more than fodder for solving problems we lose something very valuable and that is the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge sake. Something happens when you do history for its own sake, not just to prepare for a career in politics, for example. Or if you do maths just for engineering. You lose a certain perspective, you lose knowledge itself. Knowledge is not just something you gain to live, it is something, almost tangible that enriches our lives because it throws up surprising perspectives and unleashes powerful forces of change.

The conference this year had a strong sense that the teacher is increasingly irrelevant, and I’m not that convinced that wide awake robots are the best solution. I think the teacher will be with us for quite a while yet!

 

 

Why STEAM should be SHTEAM!

In some quarters Art has rather begrudgingly been added to STEM, and although some definitions include the Humanities, Art is normally conceptualized as the creative arts, visual art, design and possibly music – a catchall for being creative. This leaves disciplines such as History, Philosophy, Language Arts or Literature out in the cold. Again, this depends on those doing the defining, but I would argue that we need to conceptualize STEAM as SHTEAM to make sure that the Humanities are included all the time! I believe this is vital because many begrudge adding even Arts to the equation! Yes, I am being somewhat facetious, because this suggestion, in fact, returns us to where we were before the STEM movement raised its head. SHTEAM is of course nothing but a well-rounded education! And that’s my point!

On my local University campus, you can see the consequences of neglectful thinking. Crossing campus from the sparkling and obviously well-funded Sciences block towards the Arts and Humanities buildings; run-down, in need of structural repair as much as just a lick of paint, the years of neglect are visible. The Performing Arts building looks positively dangerous to navigate with unprotected stairwells and industrial looking holes in the wall! Now I know there will be some who argue that this is not that problematic. The idea behind STEM Education was to prioritize STEM subjects as they carry key weight in promoting entrepreneurial growth for any country. Science, Engineering, and Technology are vital and fill a skills gap in the economy. I agree, but surely the Arts and Humanities are as vital to our economy? I can almost hear some shaking their heads and saying sure, they are important, but not key imperatives and arguing for a well-rounded Renaissance education dilutes the emphasis on the Sciences.

I kind of get that on a logical level, but it offends my soul! In a world where Artificial Intelligence is likely to make STEM pretty redundant, perhaps we should be cultivating the Arts and Humanities more – they might be all the robots leave for us! The likely effect of Artificial Intelligence is to reduce the number of jobs across all industries, diluting the imperative for Science majors in any case. I realize that current job needs also need to be factored in, but we are educating kids now who will be reaching current retirement age only in the 2060s!

So why do we need the Humanities as opposed to the Creative Arts and Design? History, Philosophy, and Literature give us a sense of our place in the human scheme of things, of our story and our worth as a species. I want you to imagine a world, maybe only a decade hence when Artificial Intelligence has led to the shedding of a vast number of jobs across a wide swath of industries and professions. Universal Basic Income is the norm and employment for life is abnormal. This is not too far-fetched. There are only a certain number of possibilities if this is our future, and most of them look pretty bleak for humanity. Humanity will either exist as a vast underclass kept under control merely to consume the products of robotic armies and keep a small uber class in power, or humanity could assert itself and insist on its worth and value, free from the curse of manual labour, free to explore our creative sides and flourish. The second outcome is highly unlikely, to be honest, but downright impossible unless we start to gain a sense of our worth now and assert our rights! A thorough grounding in the Humanities is, to my mind, essential to this project.

 
 
 
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