DaSilva, C. & Trkman, P. (2014), “Business Model: What It Is and What It Is Not”, Long Range Planning 47, 379–389
DaSilva, C. & Trkman, P. (2014), “Business Model: What It Is and What It Is Not”, Long Range Planning 47, 379–389
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
T.S. Eliot, from Little Gidding
Eliot’s words are, deservedly, often quoted and I don’t suppose any of us know what he had in mind when he wrote them. But they have had resonance for me recently as, unexpectedly, I find my current professional and academic path bringing me back to some old questions.
As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, my undergraduate studies were in Theology, followed up with an MPhil in Hebrew Studies. For reasons that are not worth going into here, I started my career in a very different area. I don’t like to admit it these days, but my first graduate job was in banking, leading to a career that moved though accountancy, financial management, general management and HR before landing up in education in 2007. For the past five years or so, I have increasingly focused on the impact of technology on education, as reflected in most of the content of this blog. One of the fascinating things about educational technology is that you cannot consider it in isolation from the impact of technology on society generally. So I have ended up reading the works of those who have reflected on these big questions.
Which brings me to my recent reading of Technopoly, an extraordinary book by the late American academic Neil Postman. It generated lots of thoughts, some recorded in this blog, but here I want to focus on one particular sentence that gave me a jolt. Postman is here drawing an important distinction about our use of the word “science”. On the one hand, you have physical sciences, which deal with processes, subject to laws of cause and effect which can be established, tested and falsified. On the other hand, you have social sciences, which deal with practices, resulting from human decisions and actions, and all but impossible to test or falsify. He illustrates this point by the difference between a “blink” and a “wink”:
“A blink can be classified as a process; it has physiological causes which can be understood and explained within the context of established postulates and theories. But a wink must be classified as a practice, filled with personal and to some extent unknowable meanings and, in any case, quite impossible to explain or predict in terms of causal relations.” (my italics)
This jolted me because Postman is here presenting as established fact something which I think is arguable. It could be (and, as we shall see below, often is) argued that the only reason human behaviour is “impossible to explain or predict in terms of causal relations” is because we don’t yet understand the complex relationships involved in human behaviour.
This, I think, is the perspective of a group we may call “naturalist atheists”, of whom the most prominent member is the British scientist Richard Dawkins. I have read his works with interest and, if I am understanding him correctly, he would argue that the natural laws account for everything that happens in the universe. That includes the human brain, but the human brain is very, very complex and we are nowhere near understanding how it works. However, genetics and neuroscience are young disciplines. They will, or at least hypothetically could, advance to the point where all human behaviour can be explained in terms of cause and effect, albeit very complex ones. The only mysterious thing about consciousness is its complexity.
This argument has important implications. If the brain can be described as a very complex set of interactions, then it becomes possible to imagine that machines will one day replicate the workings of the human brain. In fact, given how quickly technology is advancing, at some point the machines will “think” much better than we do. This leads to the idea of “The Singularity”, popularised by the American futurist Ray Kurzweil, who speculates about what a world might look like when machines can do everything that humans can, only better, including advancing their own intelligence. According to a recent article in the New Yorker, “virtually everyone in the A.I. field” shares the general belief that machines will overtake humans. Speculation about “uploading” consciousness, and similar ideas, also presupposes this worldview. If consciousness is something qualitatively different to the workings of a computer, then all this is nonsense.
I feel confident in saying that Postman would emphatically reject this view, and yet I’m not sure he could disprove it. This means he (along with those on the other side of the argument) is actually doing something which is familiar to me from my earlier studies – he is making a commitment of faith. He is choosing to believe that, ultimately, human behaviour cannot be explained or predicted, and then living according to that belief. The struggle between the view of the human brain as a machine, albeit a very, very complex machine and the human brain as something qualitatively different to a machine is one we see played out in all kinds of settings (including education). Neither side can prove their argument, and yet it is an issue of great importance. We all choose, explicitly or implicitly, which side of the debate we are on because the consequences will inform our worldview. I can recognise this type of struggle – it is, at least in a sense, theological.
The struggle is made more explicit by another writer on the relationship between technology and society. Jaron Lanier is a technology entrepreneur, musician and now a sort of philosopher. In his book You Are Not A Gadget, Lanier argues passionately that human consciousness is something that will never be replicated by non-human objects, no matter how complex they ever become. He insists that there is “mystery” at the heart of human consciousness, at the same time being careful to say that you should not necessarily extrapolate from this “mystery” particular beliefs about God, the soul, the afterlife, or any of those areas. Nonetheless, the mystery is important, and it feeds into his argument, which echoes Postman’s, that technology must be subordinated to the workings of a just and flourishing society, not the other way round. He also adds, mischievously, that great music makes this case much better than he ever could.
To put the issue another way, do we believe in the mystery that is human choice, or to use the theological term, free will? Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning,
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
If the “naturalists” are right, then he is dead wrong. We have no choices, we just think we do and we are actually experiencing a set of complex interactions in our brain. But if we believe in the “mystery” then he is right.
This question cannot be answered with the tools that we have and we must live with it. But, if we are to have a consistent worldview, we need to choose the answer we will live by, our working hypothesis. One way or another, we need to have faith. I am genuinely surprised, and quite gratified, to find that the old idea still has such importance.
Maybe it is the stage I have reached in my thinking, or maybe a general trend, but I find myself more and more coming across the work of a group I might call “techno-sceptics”. These are people who, while highly proficient in their own use of technology, are sceptical and concerned about its impact on society in varying ways. These concerns have a long history, of course, going back through, to pick a few, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, H.G.Wells, Mary Shelley and much further if you care to trace it. The modern writers I am reading in this camp include figures like Jaron Lanier, Audrey Watters and Tara Brabazon. I find their work fascinating and provocative, and commend it to anyone with any interest in how technology is affecting society..
One of the writers this group often cites as a critical influence is the late American academic Neil Postman, so I decided to get to grips with what seems to be considered his masterpiece, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. I was not disappointed – it is an accessible, thoughtful, powerful analysis and I can see it inspiring several blog posts. But I will start with one idea in particular that makes modern trends so much more comprehensible.
We hear all the time about suffering “information overload”, at least in Western society. The phenomenon is not completely new – for centuries there has been more information around than the average person can navigate or assimilate. However, the volume of information has increased exponentially throughout history. The invention of writing ratcheted up the amount of information available to people, the printing press gave it another huge boost and then it accelerated through the nineteenth and twentieth century, as we acquired the telegraph, telephone, radio, television and of course, most dramatically, the world wide web. A study in 2003, one of many of its type, showed that 90% of data in the world had been generated in the previous two years. So much is widely observed and understood.
What is less well understood, though fairly obvious once pointed out, is how this affects the role of institutions. Postman, who is here developing the analysis of James Beniger, describes institutions as, at least in part, mechanisms for controlling information. This can be seen very obviously in a court of law, where there are strict rules about what information is permissible in settling a case. This is because there may be any amount of information relevant to a case and to make any sense of the situation, the “allowable information” must be filtered according to agreed criteria. In fact, this role of information filter is true of social institutions generally. Our traditional institutions – government, schools, universities, political parties, the family, even the nation – to a greater or lesser extent control the flow of information to and between their members. Sometimes this control is exercised physically, as churches and governments have banned books from time to time, but more often it is exercised in “soft” ways. An institution delivers messages about what information is important and should be received and what should be ignored. Take the example I work in – a university. A university teaches some subjects and not others, thereby conveying which subjects are worthy of study, in its view. A curriculum will include some writers, ideas and texts and not others. A student is therefore having their information filtered (and, hopefully, being taught to develop their own filters, but that is another story). Families allow their children access to certain information, but not all. Political parties maintain world views that privilege certain information sources over others.
Postman further points out that the flood of information means that all these institutions are under attack, and being systematically weakened. This is surely much more obvious now than when he was writing in 1992. The populist backlash across Europe in the elections held in May of this year demonstrated very clearly the weakness of mainstream political parties as well as the European Union itself. Universities and schools find themselves subject to increasing criticism and external direction. Organised religion is declining fast, even in the US, by far the most religious Western nation. The traditional family is morphing, and certainly becoming less effective at controlling information flows (as a father of two teenagers, I know this for a fact).
Does this matter? Isn’t it a good thing that these institutions cannot control what we read, think or say any more? Maybe. Many years ago I left organised religion because I found its restrictions offensive and incomprehensible, so I appreciate the upside here. However, Postman does make a striking point. The traditional institutions have something in common – they are driven by a sense of moral purpose of some sort. This is very clear for religion, but education has traditionally been driven by a desire to make people into better people, political parties to achieve certain moral ends, and so on. In losing these institutions, we lose this sense, and quite possibly the whole idea of moral purpose itself.
Because, of course, we still need information filters. If we lose the traditional institutions, we need alternatives that will help us judge what information to expose ourselves to, and what to ignore. Postman died in 2003, before “Web 2.0” really came to fruition, but events have probably unfolded pretty much as he would have predicted. We have not abandoned information filters at all, in fact it would be impossible for us to do so. We have just replaced the old filters with new ones. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the rise of “mass media” in various forms, which have been our key filters for a while, but the newspapers, magazines, radio stations and television channels are now suffering in turn. At least in the West, the two most dominant institutions now managing the information we receive seem to me to be Google and Facebook. They are qualitatively different from the traditional institutions in many ways. They do use the language of moral purpose at times, and I am sure there is some idealism among their workforce, but the fact is that they are publicly traded companies, legally answerable to their shareholders who are primarily looking for a financial return. And, although they differ in many ways, Google and Facebook have a similar business model. Their business model is to find out personal information about you through your online behaviour and then sell that information to advertisers. In other words, their ultimate purpose is to sell you stuff. And our ultimate purpose, in their world, is to buy stuff. We don’t have any other function.
The idea has my attention now. This is where, for all the undoubted and wonderful benefits of technology, I start to worry about where we have got to, and where we are going.
We are now halfway through our group design task as part of our studies. As previously noted, we are battling a number of obstacles, and they are giving rise to another, quite interesting issue. I have spent some of the last few years teaching management and strategy concepts to trainee accountants, particularly focusing on applying these concepts to scenarios. I am often asked if someone has come up with the “right” answer. In areas like management and strategy, it is hard to talk about “right” answers, so I usually say that there are potentially many “right” answers. However, there are also going to be “wrong” answers, in the sense that analysis may be faulty, or a student may come up with recommendations that are completely uncommercial, or impractical. Some can accept this concept but others, perhaps more used to solving mathematical issues, find this difficult.
Our current task is a creative one, so it makes even less sense to talk about “right” answers, but I am feeling more sympathy with my students. Our task is very unstructured and open-ended – we are interpreting instructions in different ways. While I am sure all our approaches are valid, we need to know if we are making real howlers somewhere, or fundamentally misunderstanding something. Perhaps this is one of the key skills of being an educator (at any level). You need to give your students enough freedom to be creative and take new directions, at the same time giving them reassurance and feedback that they are not making mistakes that will waste their time or lead to problems down the line. There is certainly no “right” answer to this one – it is a delicate balance that must constantly be adjusted. Maybe this is another reason why the MOOCs will never really take over education (but that’s for another time).
Our most recent activity has been to review some case studies and frameworks relevant to our task, which is creating a tool (“digital diary”) to help learners in a range of contexts plan their development and reflect on their progress. For one study, I diverged a little from the usual pattern and looked at Voicethread, one of the most interesting tools for reflection and comment to emerge in recent years, and an eportfolio implementation at Dumfries & Galloway College, which was part of a JISC project. We are asked to draw some patterns from our research and I came up with this. The points are not perhaps entirely original, but maybe it was good to reinforce them with evidence:
These are very consistent with the principles my team-mates identified, with perhaps a couple of additional points – firstly, the need for support and examples for learners, and secondly the importance of learner buy-in if this is really going to work.
All of this is will be useful in planning our tool, and perhaps it has broader application. We will need to make the tool simple and intuitive to use and make sure plenty of support and examples are offered. Not revolutionary stuff, but very useful design principles and undoubtedly worth observing wherever possible.
My day job for the last year has been working on the creation, launch and development of a new degree programme and (we believe) a new approach to education. It has been a complex task, involving a globally dispersed team (with all the issues of synchronicity, language and culture that brings), significant ambiguity and frequent adjustments. It has been hard work, and has involved many conference calls and periodic gatherings in different parts of the world. However, we have launched and are now working on the next iteration, so things are moving forward.
As a student, I am currently part of a team faced with a design task that is much smaller, but I think almost as complex. We have some written instructions, but little briefing or context. We are using some technology tools unfamiliar to many of us. Our schedules make any synchronous interaction (let alone a meeting in person) impossible, and we are all trying to fit this in around full-time jobs, family and other commitments. Any one of these would constitute a challenge and having all of them together means, I think, having the odds largely stacked against you.
Remarkably enough, we have made some progress on our task and managed to collaborate, which I think means we are doing very well – and I have to acknowledge the Herculean efforts of our team leader here in keeping us moving forward. I have managed to get my head around the website, contribute some of the analysis and in some cases get us started on the next phase of the project. We have been asked to reflect on what we have learned from the process so far, and I would highlight the following:
We are now starting a MOOC on open education (feel free to join in if you like), which forms parts of a module I am studying for my MA in Online & Distance Education. This represents an interesting experiment – running a course that is part of a qualification as a truly open section – anyone who wants to is free to drop in for part or all of it.
I may as well admit up front to being a bit of a MOOC sceptic at present. In fact, in a previous blog post I compared them to overseas call centres, self-service tills and other aspects of modern life where automation simply goes too far. But there is no question that they are changing the way we think about education, probably for ever, and I am looking forward to experiencing for myself what all the fuss is about.
Nonetheless, at this stage and given my experience of this section of the course so far, the questions in my mind are multiplying:
So, in the spirit of openness, I will set aside my scepticism. If, by the end of this course, I am closer to answering some of these questions, or understanding them better, it will have been worthwhile.
To put it mildly, there are some very significant claims being made about the impact of video sharing from credible sources. Concluding Sal Khan’s TED talk, Bill Gates, one of the most influential men in the world, commented, “I think you just got a glimpse of the future of education.” (Khan, 2011)
But how justified are these claims?
The use of video content in education has taken place for decades (Wheeler, 2012), but technology has recently made video immeasurably easier to create and share over the internet. Until recently download speeds did not allow for much internet distribution of video content (Kay, 2012). However, 2005 marked a major “tipping point” in the popular use of video sharing, seeing the spread of the first ever “viral video”, Gary Brolsma’s (2004) “Numa Numa” act, followed a few months later by the launch of YouTube, which rapidly became by far the world’s biggest video sharing site (Wesch, 2008).
Use of video has now become common in many educational contexts, including higher education generally (Kay, 2012), schools (seen in the experience of my own children and those of friends) and professional education for exams (based on my experience). This can involve using publicly-available videos on YouTube or creating bespoke videos, which can be achieved fairly easily by use of software such as Camtasia (e.g. Kay and Kletskin, 2012, and own experience).
The review in Kay (2012) generally assumes that video is a supplement to classroom teaching, but recently a number of organisations have been launched which promote video as a potential alternative to classroom instruction, although also useable as a supplement (Faviero, 2012).
Video-sharing is relatively new and so limited research is available. For the reason, the scope of this assessment is broad, including schools, higher education and professional education. Video sharing has definitely also had an impact on corporate training, notably with BT’s “Dare to Share” project (Overton, 2009), but this has been excluded from the current review.
There is widespread evidence that video, when used well, can be more engaging, enjoyable and motivating than other educational tools (Kay, 2012). This is borne out in discussions I have been part of during my studies. This is not the same as learning effectiveness, however we define it, but making education more enjoyable is presumably a good aim in itself. I would certainly say from my experience that two of the most engaging and memorable activities in the module have been video-based. A number of us commented in relation to one specific activity involving a journal article and video interview covering similar ground that the video was more accessible and valuable.
The complexities involved mean that it is hard to design tests which measure how much is retained from video, but one study showed that, in dealing with the correct application of sunscreen, video instruction led to statistically-measurable better knowledge when tested than a pamphlet, as well as being more enjoyable (Armstrong et al, 2011). This finding is not universal however – Hill & Nelson (2011) noted that, although students reported enjoying the use of video, it made no noticeable difference to academic results.
Another advantage of video is that it puts the student in control of when and where they access the information, and allows them to repeat all or part of the learning as needed (Hill & Nelson, 2011). This ability to repeat learning means that video can be used as a way of “catching up” with classes that have been missed, which is one of the ways we used the video content which I am involved in preparing.
Some people have seen the potential of video to widen access to education. In her TED talk, Koller (2012) positioned this as the key advantage of education via video. Similar visions are driving other start-ups – Khan Academy, Udacity and edX, although their business models vary (Faviero, 2012).
One approach which video makes possible is the idea of the “Flipped Classroom”. The idea is that instruction, which has traditionally happened in class, takes place via video and problem-solving, which has traditionally happened as homework, takes place in class. This can be seen as a better use of teacher time than broadcasting information (Bergmann et al, 2011). A number of American school districts are using Khan Academy videos as part of flipped classroom approach and, although it is very early days, there is some evidence that it can improve test results and student and teacher engagement (Kronholz, 2012, Blend My Learning, 2012)
Finally, an advantage sometime linked to the flipped classroom is that fact that, if video is combined with online tests, it can generate data which can then be extremely helpful in determining educational approaches. As one teacher explained, “I’m getting data in real time about each student instead of assuming the entire class needs intervention” (quoted in Kronholz, 2012).
Both Khan (2011) and Koller (2012) make the point that education at present makes very little use of data, compared with, say, medicine. This is partly because of difficulties in gathering useable data. But video instruction, combined with online testing, can change this. Khan illustrated his point with a graph showing the uneven progression of students using his materials. Assessing students at fixed points may lead to some being labelled “gifted” and others “slow” simply due to a “coincidence of time”, when in reality they are simply progressing at different speeds. Use of video, combined with other tools, can open up new possibilities for data-driven, and student-centred, forms of education.
When this issue was discussed in our course forum, it was clear that different people have different preferences, with some negative views. This suggests that, although video may be valuable for many learners, others will have trouble engaging with it. In my own organisation, we have made recorded lectures available covering the same material as our classes and yet many students prefer to attend a physical class, even at extra cost. Clearly, many students find a live classroom more engaging.
A second issue is that accessibility will be limited by access to technology, including an adequate internet connection. Kay (2012) found that technology issues were the main reason cited in studies for not using video podcasts. Wheeler (2012) expresses concerns about students who cannot afford the necessary technology, or have visual impairments. The schools reviewed by Kronholz (2012) provided a laptop for each child but this will not be affordable for most schools around the world.
Thirdly, there is some evidence that video is more suited to knowledge-based learning rather than deeper understanding (Hill & Nelson, 2011). Studies suggesting that video instruction is effective tend to focus on basic knowledge, easily assessed via standardised tests. It is much harder to demonstrate, or argue, that video content can facilitate deeper forms of learning. This is one of the reasons for Wheeler’s (2012) scepticism:
“I used to jump all over lecturers who, when they had nothing better to speak about, decided to ‘put on a video.’ It made no sense then to simply cop out and fill time by showing a video, when a well considered discussion session on a thorny topic was much better at getting the synapses sparking.”
Wheeler’s fundamental concern is that video can be seen as a cheap way of replacing other, more valuable approaches.
Fourth, because it can be very powerful, video can also be a manipulative way of delivering content. In our discussion of Wesch’s (2007) video, we felt that the very power of the video could lead to manipulation. It is important to be aware of this sort of manipulation and avoid being drawn into it too easily.
In the next blog post, I will review some suggested best practices for video sharing in education.
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