Higher Education is about to crash and burn, says Seth

I couldn’t help but agree with Seth Godin’s summary of the coming melt-down in higher education – it’s an almost perfect echo of the themes I have been harping on about for ages. I also happened to read it shortly after finding the short video of me talking about the dysfunctional nature of education at DOTT Cornwall (I was very jittery – too much coffee before speaking and a sand glass with only four minutes to get it all out). It’s nice to know it’s not just me thinking this way.

You should read Seth’s complete post, but here’s the summary of the main reasons:

  1. Most colleges are organized to give an average education to average students.
  2. College has gotten expensive far faster than wages have gone up.
  3. The definition of ‘best’ is under siege.
  4. The correlation between a typical college degree and success is suspect.
  5. Accreditation isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.

Out of all of these, the last point is key because it contains the other four. Higher education institutions have based the value of their currencies (the degree you leave with) on the quality of its education and what you can do with the proof of that education afterwards. That currency’s value, like any currency, is entirely based on its reputation and scarcity – it is pretty much divorced from the reality on the ground. The convergence of the points Seth lists – along with shifts such as aging populations, changing business structures, the shift from industrial command and control thinking to a more networked, service and knowledge mode of thinking – are very real and most likely to coagulate into a big shift behind most of the major player’s backs. Seth sums it up well:

The only people who haven’t gotten the memo are anxious helicopter parents, mass marketing colleges and traditional employers. And all three are waking up and facing new circumstances.

Does this mean there is no future for higher education (and that I am out of a job)? I hope not. It’s not that places like Cambridge or Harvard are going to die out, it’s just that they’ll end up the way that most people view politics (in the UK at least) at the moment – highly bureaucratic monoliths that don’t appear to be very relevant to anyone’s lives anymore. That doesn’t sound to exciting to the average teenage school leaver if you ask me.

I think there is a place for higher education, but I think institutions must think radically for them to remain relevant. Instead of thinking about accreditation – either of themselves to government or of the students – they need to think about the service experience they offer. It’s the experience of higher education that has real value, not the delivery of knowledge. That’s the reason behind the COTEN Project that takes a service design approach to thinking about innovation in higher education.

Re-imagining Higher Education

Recently I have been giving much thought to the structure and issues that most of us in Higher Education have been struggling with for several years. There are three areas of thought that come together when re-imagining education, particularly within Art and Design education. The theory of the Long Tail, the Play Ethic and Cradle to Cradle sustainability. Each of these requires a radical turn-around in current ways of thinking. Tweaking the edges won’t do.

What if we thought about education the same way we thought about our other precious resources or the same way that we think about the changing face of the media? The full post after the jump is quite long, but covers a lot of thought. If you would prefer to read off-line, you can download a PDF version (with references) here.

Continue reading “Re-imagining Higher Education”

For Education The Future Isn’t What it used to Be

A few weeks ago I gave a talk called The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be to the Associate Deans over at Northumbria University. I thought I’d blogged about it with the podcast of the recording I made there, but it seems I forgot.

In the talk I wanted to draw together some emerging and converging trends, which, if they do all happen at once, could really turn higher education on its head. If you mix in some of the other threats such as an aging population and the subsequent fall in student numbers it becomes clear that a radical re-think is necessary.

Rather than double-post, I ll point you to where I posted it over at the Omnium blog where there is a direct download, slides and a embedded player version of it.

What is education worth?

Interesting piece in the Guardian about a new (but already out of date) British Council report (PDF link) on what education is worth to the UK. I’ve always wondered where the philosophy that universities or education should be profitable in the most basic, business sense comes from – it makes little sense with something so crucial to the fabric of society. That is, one would hope, what taxes are for.

It’s the same narrow economic thinking that asks hospitals to make a profit too. Nobody, however, seems to ask the military to make a profit (“Please make sure that $1.9m missile gives us a decent ROI when you blow up that desert village. Don’t miss.”)

The answer to the title question in the UK, by the way, is £27,771.50 million. More than financial services or the automotive industry.

Creative Collaboration and the Future of Education Seminar

I’m going to be giving a seminar called Creative Collaboration and the Future of Education at Urban Learning Space in Glasgow who have a number of really interesting projects concerning future ways of working, playing, thinking and learning.

I’ll be presenting the Creative Waves 2007 – VIP project in detail, talking about the using a design process and creative collaboration for cross-disciplinary projects as well as a look at the issues facing the future of education. Much of which I have developed since writing about these issues a while back. I’m planning a bit of a brainstorming session with the attendees too. There will hopefully be a podcast and a download of the presentation on the ULS website afterwards.

It would be great to catch up with any of you there and if you want to get in touch before hand, please do.

Details are: 30 August 2007, 10am – 12.30pm. It’s free, but you need to contact Yvonne Kincaid to register.

ACUADS paper – The Future has already Happened: Dispelling some Myths of Online Education

Recently the Australian Council of University Art & Design Schools finally published the papers from the 2004 ACUADS conference in Canberra.

My paper, co-written with Rick Bennett and Leong Chan, The Future has already Happened: Dispelling some Myths of Online Education, is now available for download from the ACUADS site. Here is the abstract:

As funding for higher education continues to shrink, student numbers steadily increase and international alliances become significantly important, online delivery is often heralded as the ‘direction of the future’ for learning and teaching. However, deep rooted and negative opinions regarding the online learning experience and concerns that technology will replace the teacher accompany the new pedagogical setting.

By paying careful attention to the alignment of course content, learning activities, assessment and learning outcomes, online education experiences can be engaging and rewarding for both student and teacher. However, perceptions often remain negative towards online education, viewing it as simply a cost-saving measure leading to student isolation, inactive participation and absent teachers. This paper aims to outline some myths regarding online education and dispel them as misconceived.

Essentially it argues that many of the issues that sceptics of online teaching and learning have already been dealt with long ago. We all use e-mail and the Internet all the time in our professional capacities, yet there appears to be an institutional failure to appreciate their use in education. This also comes at a time when most of my students spend a great deal of their time online. The community that they have face-to-face at university continues into the virtual realm and, like me, they often run a parallel course (instant messaging each other whilst being in the same room or building).

If any of my students are reading, I would be very happy to hear some feedback in the comments.

The Box Is All There Is

Floating Box
Photo by Christian Fregnan on Unsplash

AI getting sneaky

Recently, I wrote about the games that AI’s play, gaming training environments as logical responses to the reward and assessment stimuli they had been set. Another one has now been hiding data in order to use it later. Devin Coldewey explains in a TechCrunch article that the CycleGAN was being trained to turn aerial photographs into street maps and then generate synthetic aerial views from those street maps. The aim being to train the AI to generate aerial views from other street-maps. But the agent was not being graded on the conversion, but simply on how close the generated aerial map was to the original.

So it didn’t learn how to make one from the other. It learned how to subtly encode the features of one into the noise patterns of the other. The details of the aerial map are secretly written into the actual visual data of the street map: thousands of tiny changes in color that the human eye wouldn’t notice, but that the computer can easily detect.

It was then able to reconstruct a convincing aerial photo from the hidden data (tiny colour shifts in pixels that human eyes couldn’t perceive). Essentially, it took a crib sheet into the exam. No actual learning required.

Learning from learning

In that AI gaming article I talked about this effect often creating “structural stupidity” in corporate cultures, but it’s actually well-known in teaching and learning literature and what John Biggs calls assessment “backwash.” Students don’t do the work that the teacher says is the aim of the course. Students do the work they know they will be assessed upon. You can physically witness it when handing out a course outline—most students immediately flip to the back to see what the assessments are. From a human-centred perspective, this is perfectly natural and obvious behaviour, because it’s how we prioritise our time. This is why Biggs developed constructive alignment, an approach to aligning curriculum aims with assessments. It sounds obvious—you’re going to be assessed on the aims of the course—but often goes out of alignment due to the approach and construct of assessment. A classic example is how multiple choice exams assess rote learning more than actual understanding. I learned about this years ago when learning about teaching in higher education (Biggs’s original book was published in 1999) and it has always struck me as crazy that business management, with its obsession with targets and KPIs rarely understands a simple principle: What you measure drives human behaviour focused on the metric, not the outcome the metric is trying to measure. Sometimes they are aligned, of course, but often not, mostly because organisations don’t know how to define value, as Jeff Gothelf recently wrote. I most often witness backwash with CEOs and CXOs obsessing about raising NPS scores and App Store ratings without wanting to know about the underlying experience driving those ratings. After all, why bother reading the comments when you’ve got a number to focus your attention upon? Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this is the case. Departments of Education have themselves become obsessive about auditing, despite decades of evidence that it’s misguided.

Science’s blind spot

A similar and frequent tension between design and business (both terribly nebulous terms) is often framed as soft versus hard or fuzzy opinion versus hard truths of numbers. Experience versus business. Art versus science. Recently a client wanted evidence for the ROI of customer experience. But customer experience is not an add on, it’s all there is. Without customers there is no business. This creates a blind spot for companies, since its very ubiquity makes it invisible. Asking for an ROI of CX is like asking for an ROI of the company’s existence. The tension between science and experience was elegantly argued by two physicists and a philosopher in an Aeon article called The Blind Spot recently. (Side note: Three different authors, Steve Diller, Nathan Shedroff and Sean Sauber, also wrote a book called The Blind Spot covering much the same issue in business). I can’t do the Aeon article justice without quoting the entire thing, but the essence of it is that we falsely believe science gives us an objective, God’s eye view of the universe, when, in fact, we can never escape our experience of it. The authors argue that this means “objectivism and physicalism are philosophical ideas, not scientific ones.” To get a flavour of the argument, here is their analysis of the scientific method quoted at length:

In general terms, here’s how the scientific method works. First, we set aside aspects of human experience on which we can’t always agree, such as how things look or taste or feel. Second, using mathematics and logic, we construct abstract, formal models that we treat as stable objects of public consensus. Third, we intervene in the course of events by isolating and controlling things that we can perceive and manipulate. Fourth, we use these abstract models and concrete interventions to calculate future events. Fifth, we check these predicted events against our perceptions. An essential ingredient of this whole process is technology: machines – our equipment – that standardise these procedures, amplify our powers of perception, and allow us to control phenomena to our own ends.

The Blind Spot arises when we start to believe that this method gives us access to unvarnished reality. But experience is present at every step. Scientific models must be pulled out from observations, often mediated by our complex scientific equipment. They are idealisations, not actual things in the world. Galileo’s model of a frictionless plane, for example; the Bohr model of the atom with a small, dense nucleus with electrons circling around it in quantised orbits like planets around a sun; evolutionary models of isolated populations – all of these exist in the scientist’s mind, not in nature. They are abstract mental representations, not mind-independent entities. Their power comes from the fact that they’re useful for helping to make testable predictions. But these, too, never take us outside experience, for they require specific kinds of perceptions performed by highly trained observers.

For these reasons, scientific ‘objectivity’ can’t stand outside experience; in this context, ‘objective’ simply means something that’s true to the observations agreed upon by a community of investigators using certain tools. Science is essentially a highly refined form of human experience, based on our capacities to observe, act and communicate.

All this should, by now, sound familiar. AIs gaming systems blatantly highlights how much we overlook our subjective, tacit understanding of those systems. Metrics and assessment ignore the human behavioural experiences underpinning them. Behaviour in context is crucial, which is why Fjord work a lot with mindsets.“We can’t step outside the box in order to look within, because the box is all there is,” write Frank, Gleiser and Thompson. So we had better get to know the box, which is what everyone from the phenomenologists to C.G. Jung spent their lifetimes urging us to spend our lifetimes doing.


This post was originally written for Doctor’s Note my newsletter containing a mix of longer form essays and short musing on design, innovation, culture, technology and society. You can sign up for it here. It’s first public posting was on Medium.

Teaching, Learning and Mazes

The COTEN project is gaining momentum and there are some excellent discussions going on. A lot of the conversation is about different teaching and institutional structures and the styles of learning they encourage or discourage.

I just wrote a response to a post, which delves a little bit into my PhD subject, which is about understanding interactivity through play. As I came to the end of my PhD I realised that the principles of interactivity that I developed (more on this soon) held true for a number of other areas, including teaching and service design. I posted a response on the COTEN forums, but I’d like to air it here as a blog post in its own right:

Teaching, Learning and Mazes

Over my years of teaching I’ve tried all sorts of approaches, from leaving things very open to having things very structured. I have found it to be totally context dependent. Some students love to be left to their own devices while others crave structure. The challenge is to cater for both. It also depends on individual courses and the backgrounds of those taking them.

I also realised that the more I hands-on helped, the more helpless my students became because I was doing all the learning on their behalf. When I first started teaching, it took me a semester before I realised that helping them less actually helped them more because they worked things out for themselves and learned by doing.

Finding the right balance is the main skill of teaching I think and you really have to go with your intuition combined with direct student feedback and ignore most of the other pedagogical literature. I’m sure colleagues will shoot me down for saying that, but I found this when I did study the literature and work on this on a short post-grad course in teaching at higher education level – in the attempt to create the perfect course, it just got over structured and sapped the life and energy out of it for both me and the students.

Writing my PhD on interactivity and play, I developed a set of principles for understanding interactivity through the lens of play that I think applies here. Bear with me, because it’s going to sound like I’m going way off topic, but we’ll come back to the point:

The central principles, among others, are about finding the “magic circle” – the space of play that defines being in play and out of play (such as the lines on a football pitch, the sides of a cardboard box, etc.) and the rules of play. These rules allow for different behaviour during play (e.g. you can tackle someone holding a ball to the ground) than during “normal” life. One of the things that I argue is that knowing these two things is essential to any interaction – from interpersonal through interface to society. On the interactive interface front, users need to understand what game they’re playing and the interface needs to be set up in the right way. In this way you can explore, analyse and design for both tightly controlled UI environments such as an iPhone app or a part of an operating system, but the principles also allow for the same analysis of an interactive art installation. The key is understanding the context. In the latter example, it might be desired that the interactor is deliberately tricked or gets lost or that the interface is ambiguous unlike the clarity of an iPhone app. On the other hand that iPhone app might have playful elements that encourage you to explore the boundaries of the play space (the magic circle) and help you to learn the interface without ever really feeling like you’re learning at all, such as the iPhone’s “one free interaction”.

In the art installation example, the critical aspect of getting the interaction right is that interactors understand that they are meant to be lost. That is, they understand that they’re supposed to not understand the interface straight away and that discovering how it all works is part of the experience. Experienced videogamers will understand this idea straight away, because in most videogames the point is not to read the rules and then play the game, the point is that finding out what the rules are is part of the gameplay experience.

It struck me a while ago as I was deconstructing all of this how much it parallels the learning experience. Learning, by definition, involves a journey into unknown territory, otherwise you would not need to learn it (because it’s not unknown). This is often and usually inherently uncomfortable – nobody likes to feel stupid or confused. It’s rather like being in a maze – at least it is if the teaching and learning experience is going well, because when you are in a maze you know that you are meant to be confused and that somewhere there is a way out and/or if you yell out, somebody will come and help you. This kind of learning experience is usually very positive and why we hear so much terminology of good teachers being ‘guides’. But simply giving someone a map would be “cheating” in play and game terminology and we all know that this takes the fun out of playing.

Another kind of learning experience that is extremely negative is feeling lost, but not knowing you are in a maze that you are supposed to work your way out of. When that’s the case, you just feel lost and confused and it’s all pretty scary because wherever you turn it seems like a dead end. In this example, a map of the maze is equivalent to the tools and methods and technology or techniques that lost students often cling to at the expense of the learning experience they might have if they could work out their own way out of the maze. It’s a completely understandable emotional state, but it doesn’t lead to much lifelong or long-lasting learning.

In both cases you are in a maze, so the context is the same, but the overarching difference is the conceptual space you are in mentally. Setting up this space – the magic circle and the rules of play – seem to me to be the skill that not only the teacher needs to bring to the learning experience, but also that the institutions structures need to encourage.

Most of the time it seems that a lot of effort is spent on making maps to the maze and not on trying to develop the mental space. I think this is because the former is concrete and feels manageable and measurable, while the latter is highly personal and not directly measurable (but the results do show). It’s rather like the difference between Apple’s approach to usability and Jakob Nielsen’s obsessively warped understanding of it (in which he exclaims that, “users don’t know where they can click” when referring to a multitouch device).