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What role does technology have in shaping a new future in education?

January 3rd, 2011 by Graham Attwell

The first blog of the new year looks at what I see as something of a contradiction for those of us wanting to change and hopefully improve education. Lets look at two trends from 2010.

In terms of the use of technology for teaching and learning we saw limited technical innovation. OK, the UK saw an increasing trend towards providing Virtual Learning environments (mainly Moodle) in primary schools. Applications like Google docs and Dropbox allowed enhanced facilities for collaborative work and file sharing. However neither of these was designed specifically for educational use. Indeed the main technical trend may have been on the one hand the increased use of social software and cloud computing apps for learning and on the other hand a movement away from free social software towards various premium business models. Of course mobile devices are fast evolving and are making an increasing impact on teaching and learning.

But probably the main innovation was in terms of pedagogy and in wider approaches to ideas around learning. and here the major development is around open learning. Of course we do not have a precise or agreed definition of what open education or open learning means. But the movement around Open Educational Resources appears to be becoming a part of the mainstream development in the provision of resources for tecahing and learning, despite significant barriers still to be overcome.  And there is increasing open and free tecahing provision be it through online ‘buddy’ systems, say for language learning, various free courses available through online VLEs and the proliferation of programmes offered as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) using a variety of both educational and social software. Whilst we are still struggling to develop new financial models for such programmes, perhaps the major barrier is recognition. This issue can be viewed at three different levels.

  1. The first level is a more societal issue of how we recognise learning (or attainment). at the moment this tends to be through the possession of accreditation or certification from accredited institutions. Recognition takes the form of entry into a profession or job, promotion to a higher level or increased pay.
  2. The second level is that of accreditation. Who should be able to provide such accreditation and perhaps more importantly what should it be for (this raises the question of curriculum).
  3. The third is the issue of assessment. Although traditional forms of individual assessment can be seen as holding back more innovative and group based forms of teaching and learning there are signs of movement in this direction – see, for example the Jisc Effective Assessment in a Digital Age, featured as his post of the year by Stephen Downes.

These issues can be overcome and I think there are significant moves towards recognising broader forms of learning in different contexts. In this respect, the development of Personal Learning Environments and Personal Learning Networks are an important step forward in allowing access to both technology and sources of learning to those not enrolled in an institution.

However, such ‘progress’ is not without contradiction. One of the main gains of social democratic and workers movements over the last century has been to win free access to education and training for all based on nee4d rather than class or income. OK, there are provisos. Such gains were for those in rich industrialised countries – in many areas of the world children still have no access to secondary education – let alone university. Even in those rich countries, there are still big differences in terms of opportunities based on class. And it should not be forgotten that whilst workers movements have fought for free and universal access to education, it has been the needs of industry and the economic systems which have tended to prevail in extending access (and particularly in moulding the forms of provision (witness the widely different forms of the education systems in northern Europe).

Now those gains are under attack. With pressures on econo0mies due of the collapse of the world banking system, governments are trying to roll back on the provision of free education. In countries like the UK, the government is to privatise education – both through developing a market driven system and through transferring the cost of education from the state to the individual or family.

Students have led an impressive (and largely unexpected) fightback in the UK and the outcome of this struggle is by no means clear. Inevitably they have begun to reflect on the relation between their learning and the activities they are undertaking in fighting the increases in fees and cutbacks in finances, thus raising the issue of the wider societal purposes and forms of education.

And that also poses issues for those of us who have viewed the adoption of technology for learning as an opportunity for innovation and change in pedagogy and for extending learning (through Open Education) to those outside schools and universities. How can we defend traditional access to institutional learning, whilst at the same time attacking it for its intrinsic limitations.

At their best, both the movements around Open Education and the student movement against cuts have begun to pose wider issues of pedagogy and the purpose and form of education as will as the issues of how we recognise learning. One of the most encouraging developments in the student movement in the UK has been the appropriation of both online and physical spaces to discuss these wider issues (interestingly in opposition to the police who have in contrast attempted to close access to spaces and movement through he so-called kettling tactic).

I wonder now, if it is possibel to bring together the two different movements to develop new visions of education together with a manifesto or rather manifestos for aschieveing such visions.


  1. […] Graham Attwell startet das neue Jahr mit zwiespältigen Gefühlen: Auf der einen Seite Entwicklungen wie Open Educational Resources (OER) oder Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), die schon lange nicht mehr nur in Bildungsnischen wahrgenommen werden; und auf der anderen Seite die Versuche staatlicher Stellen, die Kosten der Hochschulbildung schrittweise zu privatisieren und damit den freien Zugang zur Bildung zu erschweren (was ja gerade in UK aktuell ein großes Thema ist). Lesenswert! Graham Attwell, Pontydysgu, 3. Januar 2011 […]

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