Here’s a few thoughts from me on the future of education, taken from the fantastic Future of Technology in Education conference on October 3rd, 2014:
And here are the slides I used:
The future isn't what it used to be.
Those of you that know me will, at some point in the past, have been bored witless by me regaling stories that are essentially thinly veiled excuses for me to brag about the fact that a long time ago, I managed to wangle living in Canada for a few years. One of the cultural highlights of my time out there was ice hockey, a sport I’ve always been intrigued by and one that is obviously pretty much right at the heart of Canadian culture much in the same way as football and rugby is here.
When you’re in Canada, there really is no escape from hockey, it’s on in every bar, played in every back yard and driveway and is a celebrated part of the national psyche. However, outside of Canada, (a few US states and several Nordic countries) it barely exists. If you’re lucky, you might catch a brief write up in a UK newspaper, watch a grainy highlight clip on the web or if you’re really sad, read Canadian newspapers on your favourite tablet device just to keep your hand in. I developed a love of the sport that has long lay unrequited thanks to the dearth of coverage that exists outside of Canada, but in the last few days, everything has changed.
Last Friday, Microsoft launched NHL GameCentre on the Xbox (access is also available on other platforms and for other sports), a hub for all of the NHL activity, a single destination for every team and every game. I’m not here to talk to you about the technology of this implementation (although it’s very impressive) but what I want you to think about is the mechanics and the principle at work.
For an annual subscription of just $50 US dollars, I can enjoy HD broadcasts both live (albeit at stupid o’clock in the morning) and replays at a much more sensible time, so I can host my own “Hockey Night in Banbury”. Take a step back and just think about what’s happened here. I haven’t signed up to a local broadcast provider, I’m not selecting a package of channels, I’m picking a single, specific sport, from another continent and I’m having it curated and delivered in HD to my living room in the North Oxfordshire wilderness.
This is not just the future of entertainment, but it is also the future of pretty much every service we’ll consume and what’s crucial to understand is not just the shrinking of the globe, but also the increasingly granular nature of the choice I have. Keeping with the entertainment theme, in the future, I’ll be able to pay for access to specific channels from _anywhere in the world_, or even just make micro payments just for the shows I want to see. Imagine if your license fee (or cable/satellite subscription) was just an account balance that you agree to pay, but you then have the choice to use it as a pay as you go basis. You only pay for the programmes you watch. I’m not saying this is exactly the answer, but why shouldn’t I have this level of choice? Even as a consumer of free TV, I still end up with a bunch of channels I’ll never watch. It’s also pretty incredible for the content providers too. Think about what’s just happened to the NHL, they’ve opened up their market from North America and a few Nordic countries, to the world. That’s not a bad approach to scale.
Increasingly, this level of global and granular choice is going to come to us across all aspects of our lives, on a local, national and global level. We’re seeing it begin to happen in education with institutions offering access to their courses regardless of the student’s location, citizens are increasingly comparing the services they receive from local governments – what happens when I can choose which local authority provides which services I consume? For those that are less reliant on location it could make a lot of sense (both financial and common). Equally, what does it mean for employers and employees? For some jobs, it means I should be able to live in another country and still do the work I need to do – I know that feels like a bit of a stretch today, but I’m telling you now it’s already starting to happen – “snowbirds” have been living between Florida and Canada for years and now, we’re beginning to see “inter-annual migration” where, unlike my 5 year stay as an ex-pat in Canada, it’s just for a few months of the year, every year. Just yesterday I was talking to someone who has decided to live throughout the year in whichever place is the most appropriate for the work he is doing at that point in time. So just as I, on a micro level, choose to work in the library to complete a report or work in the office so I can meet colleagues, he, at a macro level chooses to live in London for the summer and LA for the Winter – understand this is a fluid arrangement, it’s not about a permanent migration.
We will continue to see more and more of this happen, everyone really needs to understand how it can work for everyone’s advantage. But locked up in all of this is a really interesting paradox where location is becoming less relevant in one sense, and in another it’s becoming crucial. Getting the balance right for this is going to challenge brands, advertisers and service providers (not to mention governments) for some time to come.
As for me, the wings are ready for the BBQ, the beers are in the fridge, its game on tonight!
There has been much discussion in the UK recently about the importance of getting the right approach to the role of technology in schools. Many have used this as the opportunity to reinforce the need for greater emphasis on the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) with further focus being given to the need to create a new generation of “kids who code”. Whilst this on its own is an incredibly important initiative, it is vitally important to continue to remind ourselves that it is still just a subset of the overall duty of care we have as technologists to ensure that every single aspect of society is empowered by technology. Yes that means having great software, and as such brilliant computer scientists, but more importantly it means ensuring that every single member of society knows how to make the best use of technology whatever their societal role – this is our modern equivalent of a “PC on every desk”.
In order to achieve this it means that we need to get beyond teaching the “tools” and start teaching the “skills” that will make all the difference for the workforce of the future. In particular it requires that our children and every other member of our society are equipped with the cognitive capability and skills that enable them to harness the incredible potential that technology brings to us. It is no longer just a case of “feeding” them with the basic tools that will become obsolete tomorrow, but instead teaching them to “fish” in a growing digital pool.
Within our brave new digital world, one of the most important skills we must learn is “critical thinking” a concept that rather incredibly, dates back to Socrates over 2000 years ago, but after being “recently” updated in the 20th century for a modern society by many great scholars it provides an powerful framework for our internet age.
Every single day, we are bombarded by millions of signals of data, information and content, and every single day the quantity of information we are exposed to grows exponentially. These days we are still looking for the needle, it’s just that now it’s in a billion haystacks.
Critical thinking is about “reflective” rather than “routine” thought, it’s the process of “active, persistent and careful consideration” of the credibility and conclusions of supposed knowledge or information.
Most of us use critical thinking every day and for most of the time, we are barely aware of it. Every time we read a newspaper article, watch a documentary or look something up on Wikipedia we are aware of a whole range of biases, influences and emotions that may interfere with the validity, accuracy and overall conclusion of the content and, if we’re doing our job properly, we take all of that into account as we parse the information, reflect on it drawing in a range of other context and ultimately use it to draw conclusions and make decisions.
Fortunately for us, we’ve had years of practice and experimentation to get this right but in this new digital age, where children and young people have so much access to an incredible world of information but have yet to develop the skills to know how to deal with it.
From an early age, we need to ensure that children using the internet are able draw upon critical thinking skills to:
Search efficiently and effectively – depending not solely on the search engine’s view of relevancy but able to navigate and adjust the query to ensure the most appropriate results.
Distinguish kinds of sources and analyse a source’s validity and reliability – from basic differentiation of primary vs secondary sources through to deconstructing domain names and URL’s to learn more context about the source.
Make a habit of cross checking facts, even from reliable sources – we know from experience that even “authorities” can mislead and experts make mistakes so wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
Conscientiously and properly attribute the words and ideas of others – the internet has made plagiarism a lot easier, but thankfully, easier to spot. Students need to know the basic rules about when and how to quote others’ words and how to properly attribute the ideas that are not their own.
Stay safe on the internet – these are some of the most important skills of all, from not giving out personal information through to taking care about the kind of conversations they enter into on-line, staying safe is absolutely paramount.
Interact with others online honestly, respectfully, fairly and clearly – the anonymity, immediacy and lack of proximity presented by the internet can lead to anti-social behaviour, sometimes with devastating consequences. Learning how to speak honestly, fairly, and with respect, clarity and brevity along with understanding why this is important in a society, especially a democracy, is crucial.
(Note: More detail on each of these areas, as well as lesson ideas for different ages of students can be found in the “Critical Thinking” white paper we published in 2010)
So, as we prepare to wind down this educational year and pause over the summer to think about the role of ICT in the new school year in September, please, let’s make sure we keep a firm focus on ensuring that as well as being brilliant at coding, our future citizens (and workforce) are equipped with all the necessary skills to make the very best of all that technology will have to offer them.
I recently presented at an event at the RSA around the role of technology in jobs, the economy and the future workforce in the UK, and although this may initially feel a little counterintuitive (and for me, potentially career limiting) I’d like to bring some of the discussion to you, highlighting in particular the general irrelevance of technology in our deliberations as to what we need to do to ensure our future workforce is equipped to help maintain and extend our position (and economy) across a broad range of industries.
Over the past few weeks, there has been much in the press about the relationship between skills, technology and job prospects, especially recently with all the discussion around the role of ICT in the tool curriculum. In all of this, overall, I grow increasingly worried that we have confused the word “skills” with the word “tools”.
Most people’s experience of technology is now more defined by their personal experience than it is by their experience at work. We no longer live in a world where people only ever see computers at a place of work or place of study and broadly speaking, technology has become a natural ingrained part of our everyday lives, just like the television, just like the 240v, 50Hz AC that comes out of the sockets in your wall. However, even despite all this, we seem predominantly transfixed on the specifics of training people to use specific tools and technologies rather than on the broader principles that make their use important and valuable. ICT continues to be a separate bolt on to both education and in how organisations use it rather than something that is naturally embedded into every aspect of our lives.
(Please understand, I get that we do not live in an society where everyone has equal opportunities and access to digital resources, but we do live in a world where increasingly, like the recent government mandate, everything is becoming “digital by default”.)
By now, we are familiar with the cliché around how we are “currently training people for jobs that don’t exist yet”, but I would argue that, although the pace of change may be slightly faster these days, that particular problem has always pretty much always been true.
My own family offers me some evidence – I am but the latest in a long line of engineers bearing the Coplin surname, my grandfather grew up in the industrial heartland of this country, working for one of the many engineering firms in the midlands as a pattern maker. My father grew up in that same environment and became an aeronautical engineer, I grew up surrounded by aeronautical and mechanical engineering insight and artefacts and became a software engineer, my son, is growing up similarly “blessed” (or cursed as his Mum may occasionally have it) and will no doubt, find his own way to re-engineer the world (although like any other six year old, his current ambition sees him working with the Police, not on the motorbikes or in the squad cars but specifically “with computers”, his own important addition to the job stereotype that makes me infinitely proud).
My grandfather went to a school without electricity, my father went to a school without calculators and I grew up in a world without personal computers and went to college in a world without the internet or the web. My son will be similarly afflicted in relation to his children (“Tell me again Dad? You didn’t even have hoverboards?”) and so it goes on.
Although the generations of Coplin engineers grew up with incredibly different tools and concepts of education, we are united by a common set of skills; almost insatiable curiosity and a desire to re-engineer and improve the world around us.
What this says to me is that the tools are broadly irrelevant. Don’t get pedantic on me, I’m not saying totally irrelevant, just that it’s more important to understand the principles that make them work and where to apply them, than it is to understand the specific workings of a given software package (or lathe for that matter).
This is really where our challenge lies – how to ensure our children and workforce are equipped with the broad principles and the aptitude and attitude to know when and where to apply them along with that sense of curiosity and wonder about the world about them.
Perhaps it was because I had just spent the best part of the past weekend with them, but my baseline for success is broadly defined by the incredible “Gov Camp” community we have here in the UK. Some 250 or so individuals from all over the country, from all parts of public sector, united by a love of technology and a desire to improve public service (or as Chris Taggart so pragmatically puts it, to “make the world a little less shit”).
What makes this community special (and for my money, an early indicator of what we can look forward to across all industries and companies in the future) is that from all of these people, only a handful (certainly less than 10) would class themselves as being from “IT”. These are individuals from the business end of government who use technology as a part of their everyday lives, and want to use it to the same extent in their professional roles. They think of technology as an enabler not an outcome. They are curious, they are confident, they overcome organisational boundaries and are guided by a civil purpose – they want to take the world apart and put it back together again in a way that it makes things better for those involved. These are the hallmarks of a creative, capable and competent workforce and the principles that are behind this curious mind-set are exactly those I think we need to infuse in our children and future workforce (of all ages). (If you want a more detailed look at what makes UK Gov Camp and the people behind it so special, you can find out what it feels like to “walk a mile in their sandals” from Steph Gray, one of the community’s incredible architects.)
For too long we have drawn a distinction between science and art, when in reality they can both be the same thing. We need to show kids (and adults alike) that, as Niko Macdonald, one of the audience members eloquently put it, “there is beauty in code” and “majesty in mathematics”. It is as much about inspiration as it is about perspiration. Unfortunately, from the discussion it becomes clear that there is a significant gap between schools and industry in helping each other understand which skills are important and what sort of careers they could lead to.
I think we can do more here, especially those of us who have children within the education system – we need to find a way of spending more time with schools to help demonstrate what careers and vocations the basic skills like maths, english and science can lead to (and that these subjects can be as creative as any art-related subject). I think a re-birth of the school computer club is one key way that we can do this without getting caught up in (or in the way of) the curriculum discussion. (HT to @MadProf and the “Monmouth Manifesto” on that one).
There is no doubt that technology will play a crucial part in our future economy, and that technology skills will be fundamentally essential for individuals to have a challenging, rewarding career but I think it’s important to highlight those careers will increasingly not be in “IT” itself. I believe it far more likely that they will be spread across the existing (in some cases eternal) and the incredible new industries that our future will offer. More importantly, the specifics of the technologies being used will vary even more significantly than over the preceding 100 years and so now, more than ever, it becomes crucial to infuse those essential principles into the mind-set of all those who are venturing into this new world of work.
Helping them understand that, as Matthew Taylor from the RSA puts it, “you don’t ‘get’ a job, you ‘create’ one” could be all it takes to get us started.
(GovCamp photo credit: David Pearson)