Three learning and IT themes from 2016

2016 has been a difficult year for many reasons. It has been marred by far more than its fair share of brutal tragedies and rude awakenings. For the field of learning and IT, the year has seen the crystallising of a number of central questions about the nature of learning in connected digital knowledge ecologies and the role IT has in schooling and other contexts of learning. Here are three…

Computing as content (again)

At the end of July, one of the most influential figures in the ed tech community, Seymour Papert, died. While Papert hadn’t been actively doing research since a tragic accident in 2006, the ideas he developed through LOGO in the early 80s continue to be key to some of the most dominant discourses in the ed tech world. 2016 saw a resurgence of Papert’s ideas in their earliest guise, programming. Fuelled in part by a growing interest in the maker movement and ideas around data literacy and open data, this year marked the re-introduction of programming to schools in several countries. This trend is likely to continue in the coming year with a return to engaging with computers as content rather than as vehicles for content delivery. To date, the thinking behind this shift through the maker movement and computational thinking is highly recognisable from Papert’s early 80s work and it will be interesting to see if and how the nature of computing as a tool in schools is reshaped (or perhaps re-reshaped) as a result.

Technology as control over schooling

While tech companies have pushed for schools to buy and lock themselves into platforms for decades, 2016 saw some worrying shifts. For the first time, a country made a move to outsource their entire general education system to a private company. In January, Liberia announced a partnership with Bridge International Academies to phase in delivery of all primary education in the country. Key to the Bridge plan is to use technology to centralise control of instruction to their offices while remotely delivering lesson plans, scripted teaching and assessments through onsite instructors who have undergone a five week training course. Data is collected on all instructor and student activity through monitoring of program delivery and a barrage of standardised testing. As Bridge describes it,

We are data-driven and technology-enabled. Using smartphones and tablets, our “closed loop” Learning Lab enables us to monitor teacher and student performance in real time, constantly reviewing and revising to ensure that we are offering a world class education that will prepare our students for the 21st century.

This data is, of course, then also used to increase efficiency for what is in the end a for profit company. While providing affordable education in a country like Liberia where access to education is sparse is a lofty goal, there are real concerns about the approach taken by Bridge. Since some of techs biggest names such as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, along with companies such as Pearson are investors and partners with Bridge, it also raises the concern that countries such as Liberia are being used as testbeds for a highly aggressive technological automation of schooling. Companies such as Google and Facebook are already developing ever more inclusive platforms for schooling that amount to a potentially significant shift in the locus of control for how schooling is configured.

Networked critical literacy

2016 has seen a number of surprising election results. In the UK, a vote to leave the European Union achieved the slimmest of possible margins, and in the US, Donald Trump defied the expectations of many to be elected as president. These events along with a general rise of rightwing popularism has led many to question the role of the internet and social media in particular in the delivery of news content and formation of political discourse. ’Post-truth’ was named the word of the year by Oxford English dictionaries  and a chorus of commentators have decried the state of online discussion. Towards the end of the year, the idea that social media companies have some responsibility for the way information is presented on their networks began to take hold. In response, Facebook began to partner with fact-checking companies and to hire human content moderators to police their network. Critiques were also made of Google, arguing that the company’s search algorithms contribute to polarisation and an echo-chamber effect where people are rarely confronted with alternative views of an issue. These issues raise significant questions for what it means to have a critically literate public and what education should be doing to mitigate the situation. Beyond common forms of critical literacy education that focus on content, these new issues require a critical understanding of the systems and algorithms that shape the social media landscape. This will require significant shifts in the ways that information literacy is taught.


Thomas Hillman, Associate Professor

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