Subset or Superset?

After dinner coffee or new ingredients?

In 2010 the Government closed down Becta, its e-learning agency, thanks to Nick Clegg’s intervention. I had worked there and had formulated a question I asked of others in government; “is e-learning a subset of learning, or a superset?” Meaning is digital learning the coffee after the main course, so we can pass on it if we wish (like Nick Clegg), or is it a new set of ingredients from which we can transform the main course in various ways? Those of you following the current disruptive capitalism debate can guess what I think. Most people in government still see it as an optional digestif and insist on “meat and two veg” forever and ever.

In 2001 & 2002 I worked on a government project, Cybrarian, that built a prototype social network,  which effectively did what Facebook does even before Zuckerburg started coding it. The big difference, part from being a British social network for use in the UK, is that in Cybrarian users owned their data rather than the platform builders. As we have seen from Facebook, Google and Apple, you can use American products as long as they can monetise your data to death; a key output in the Age of Anger. Knowing that its value was little understood I wrote “An Information Architecture for Civil Society” because digital computer-based initiatives are driven by business thinking and 3-level business information systems design (Operations, Management, Executive). New society-wide systems needed to map to existing information use in civil society. Sadly government continues to make decisions based on promoting business information systems not on the information needs of people.

Amazingly Cameron asked businessman Zuckerberg to help the UK Government cut the Labour budget deficit by using Facebook in 2010. That’s right, the Conservatives shut down a British centre of world-class expertise in digital learning and then asked Southern Californian libertarians to help save the British economy by using pretty much the same platform as they had rejected as a British technology. Mind you Tony Blair had rung Bill Gates in 1997 and asked how to save the NHS; databases was the reply. Ask an American tech guy what is the answer and they say “American tech.”

e-enabling or transformative? This question has become the key question that Nigel and I now ask of any 21st century policy initiative, such as Theresa May’s back to the grammar schools big idea. Are we going to continue behaving as though the world is exactly as our school pedagogy describes it, but slightly speeded up through digitisation? Or are we going to rethink how we might undertake what we do what do by using the potentialities and affordances of emerging technology? And not by applying business information system design to the social contexts in which we live. In learning terms we want to apply what we describe as Folksonomy not Taxonomy.

A new emerging Digital Practice can be seen in many English colleges that (we’ve) documented in our Digital Practitioner work. The transformative quality revealed in this work is that, instead of didactic subject delivery, we discovered artfully-crafted, student-centred, learning experiences.  Entry-level professionals, who grew up and used personal technology in their everyday life are very comfortable with using them in the classroom and incorporating the ideas of their students too.

Nobody knows anything in government, as William Goldman said about Hollywood. If you educate around the history of a subject everything looks like a matter of history. If you celebrate World War One for several years then history looks like lions lead by donkeys with jingoism the default setting of the populace (unless you have an alt.history to draw on). Since Thatcher politicised education in 1986 and promoted a heavily managed National Curriculum severely reviewed and inspected by the the controlling OFSTED, we have fetishised a national education that is authoritarian and hierarchical as we try and prepare for a networked world. The current governments and the well-educated political class, A-level students on steroids, remain scared and fearful of the potential of digital transformations, scream fearfully and throw up their hands whilst asking American tech to steal everything we have but solve our problems please. Problem-solving should start in school (like Finland) not be a purchasing decision…

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