In the virtual learning environment and generally the Edutech space many digital tools have suffered from a focus on the functional, reliable and usable and have often become very feature driven. This can make them unusually unhelpful interfaces.
The LMS, the VLE, is a piece of administrative software — there’s that word “management” in there that sort of gives it away for us in the US at least — software that purports to address questions about teaching and learning but often circumscribing pedagogical possibilities. You can see its Dot Com roots too in the VLE functionality and in its interface. I mean, some VLEs still look like software from the year 2000! The VLE acts as an Internet portal to the student information system, and much like the old portals of the Dot Com era, much like AOL for example, it cautions you when you try to venture outside of it. (Watters, 2014)1
As outlined our current tools in general do not empower teaching and learning and often support administrative process over the enhancement of student or staff experience. Educators are indeed frustrated. Design Educators even more so. However this has seen a rise in interest from technologies companies that see a new market “ripe for disruption”.
Higher education is ripe for “disruption”—to use Clayton Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation”—because there is a real, systemic crisis in higher education, one that offers no apparent or immanent solution. (Bady, 2013)
In a UK report, From Bricks to Clicks: The Potential of Data and Analytics in Higher Education (2016) Sarah Porter co-chair of the report2 suggested that those education providers utilising technology to gather data on students could leave traditional campus-based institutions lagging behind.
Universities need to engage with data tools now so they can understand their power.(Swain, 2016)
The report argues that all UK higher education institutions should be considering using learning analytics – the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners – to improve student support and achieve strategic goals. Such data could be used to support the recent system that ranks Universities, The Teaching Excellence Framework. The report imagines a system in which students at risk of failure can be identified from their first day at university.
In 2014 Bainbridge published in the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education this warning about data gathering;
I make the case that digital technologies are being imposed upon formal learning environments, particularly focused within HE and often associated with the ‘student experience’ agenda. This imposition often reflects what amounts to a thoughtless approach to teaching and learning, in which pedagogy is side-lined by neo-liberal practices of efficiency and surveillance (Bainbridge, 2014)
Some of the largest tech organisations have been looking to seize the education market and advance an ambition to provide a delightful experience within Education. They also come armed with lots of data and the ability to undertake sophisticated data mining.
In 2015 Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced in an open letter to his new born daughter, that part of his new philanthropic company, bankrolled by Facebook Shares was a commitment to providing personalised learning;
technology that understands how you learn best and where you need to focus. (Zuckerberg, 2015)
Facebook’s data model transformed from selling users goods to showing you what to learn and when
While Facebook may feel like a modern town square, the company determines, according to its own interests, what we see and learn (O’Neil, 2016)
Not to be outdone, Google Classroom has been adding features and growing its install base over the last few years in numerous education sectors. Recently Google have committed a further $50 million in “supporting education and economic opportunity” (Fuller, 2017). Part of this initiative is to of course sell Chromebooks into Education. Chromebooks require a Google log in where every click and action is tracked3.
Google is ground zero for a wholly new subspecies of capitalism in which profits derive from the unilateral surveillance and modification of human behaviour (Zuboff, 2016)
Microsoft in its own bid to catch up with Chromebook’s dominance and sell their own hardware into education announced Intune for Education.
Now Windows 10 devices offer the power, performance and security schools need at the same price as Chromebooks, with none of the compromises.
Windows 10 by default also reduced users privacy as set out in terms and conditions you have to agree to in order to use the device ;
We will access, disclose and preserve personal data, including your content (such as the content of your emails, other private communications or files in private folders), when we have a good faith belief that doing so is necessary to protect our customers or enforce the terms governing the use of the services (Microsoft, 2015)
Fair enough with Microsoft, you can opt out of these default settings but this requires navigating 13 different screens and a separate website.
There is clearly a demand for technology in education which is coupled with a data driven agenda driving both how we measure education quality and how we understand and support student learning. The business model of Silicon Valley is by building technology that is based on gathering as much data as possible for ad revenue.
So with such powerful data gathering systems would it not be possible too identifies a student’s chance of going to University from their first day of Primary school. Toby Young was appointed (2018) as the UK Universities watchdog and subsequently resigned under public pressure could have suggested that with this type of data those children could be offered free school ‘milk’.
My proposal is this: once this technology (genetically engineered intelligence) becomes available, why not offer it free of charge to parents on low incomes with below-average IQs? Provided there is sufficient take-up, it could help to address the problem of flat-lining inter-generational social mobility and serve as a counterweight to the tendency for the meritocratic elite to become a hereditary elite. (Young, 2015)
To provide a delightful experience a key factor is intrinsically knowing your users at any given time and supporting their work. This means intelligently understanding a variety of contexts and being as sophisticated as possible with this information whilst providing a seamless and transparent experience.
Of course the technology companies can do just this and have a wealth of overarching user experience knowledge, they have been iterating and gathering a user base at a fantastic rate. The question is should they be allowed to and if not how do we counter this? So can higher education galvanise to provide something else. Should we provide something else?
I would be keen to hear your thoughts via my discourse, embedded below.
</li> <li class="footnote" id="fn:1"><p>Worth noting the AOL model is exactly what Facebook currently do, Facebook is the portal to the web for a lot of users</li> </p>
</li> <li class="footnote" id="fn:2"><p>The report was created by The Higher Education Commission who are an independent body made up of leaders from the education sector, the business community and the major political parties. The Commission is funded by UPP, they design and develop high quality, affordable, student accommodation, academic infrastructure and support services. Make of that what you will.</li> </p> <a href="#fnref:3" title="return to article"> ↩</a></p> </li> <li class="footnote" id="fn:3"><p>Google say they do not collect data for advertising via Google Classroom.</li> </p>