Wednesday, January 23, 2013

U-Aspire: What Technology Does?

The conversations about U-Aspire are teaching me something: How people actually see learning technologies and why E-Learning so far failed to deliver on its promise. 

Education is one of the hardest things to disrupt, because the mindset is so conservative and education experiments considered an oxymoron. The 'commandments' of accreditation are usually set in stone, and the accreditation bodies are mostly there to keep away any new thinking. So, what was possible in e-commerce, to employ the power of a new technology of connection and transaction to transform the marketplace and with it, the art of marketing, is harder to come by in learning technology.

So, the greatest mistake I tend to make when taking about U-Aspire is that I try to fit this into what people understand. People understand 'Distance Learning' though they treat this as the poor cousin of learning. Some people also know about 'online learning', which is usually limited to their own experience of it, usually e-publishing, where one can read a few pages online. When we talk about online learning, the best case scenario to most is that an on-camera classroom session is being streamed across the world, costly but still impoverished.

The point that is usually missed is that 'the medium is the message'. Each technology has its own 'affordance', patterns of behaviour that they encourage, or even create. The online learning technologies, apart from all those things like e-Publishing, streaming videos, etc., make learning social. One could complain about the poverty of technological interactions and reiterate Charles Handy's 'Touch means Trust', but then that would be undermining the possibilities of human connection and collaboration that plays out on Linkedin, Facebook and various private collaboration platforms. Some of my best friends, the most trusted ones, are on Facebook, some I have never seen, a possibility totally denied by this strand of thinking.

My tutor at UCL had an expression - 'everyone has a golden age, usually when they were twenty' - and I think that's absolutely true. However smart we are, the hardest thing to escape is our experience. Particularly within a learning culture which glorifies experience over thinking and imagination, it is hard to challenge this golden age thinking. One way to deal with the problem is to allow the age of Facebook to persist for another fifteen years, when people who grew up with Facebook start leaving school age and get into decision making positions, but that means wasted opportunities and lives, if we are talking about education. 

So, the answer to my very rhetorical question, to me, is disappointing dull: Technology changes the game. Allow enough technology into something and it changes: Shopping on Amazon is as different from going to Bazaar; with technology, Cricket is a different game than it ever has been; and even traveling somewhere is so different from what it used to be. However, we are only just allowing technology to do anything with education, and, just like all the other vain efforts that have gone before it, we are mostly trying our best to fit it into our golden age thinking.

With this realization, I am changing my role at U-Aspire. I am deliberating shedding the focus that I had on course development and teaching - that's the role I wanted to do and will go back to someday - and becoming its full-time evangelist. I don't think the U-Aspire concept, its global-first, network-centric model of education, is complex; it is just too obvious and it does not fit into patterns of people so used to golden age thinking. Indeed, there are challenges - it is no cakewalk to put something together which is big and complex and culturally diverse - but one needs to reminded that profits are, by definition, proportionate to the complexity of the problems one solves.

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