When IT Meets Politics

Sep 5 2018   3:00PM GMT

Education and training to help build the future, not just preserve the past

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo

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Unless you understand the past you cannot make sense of the present let alone make sensible preparations for an uncertain future. Unfortunately most discussion on education and training policy is based on mythology about the past, systemically flawed measures of success/failure with regard to the present and muddle, misunderstanding and conflict over objectives, let alone strategies, for the future.

1) The pace of change and the revolt against student debt are part of an existential challenge to UK educational hierarchies and systems not just current systems and processes.

I have written many times over the last thirty years on the consequences of our failure to recognise that digital disciplines change slowly, if at all, while the skills in demand change faster than we can agree a curriculum, let alone deliver courses or tests of the knowledge/competence acquired. But the problems we now face go much deeper.

Our inherited social values are endangered  by the idea that it is economically, ethically, morally and politically acceptable for half the population to enter the workforce with a millstone of debt that many will never repay. The idea of rebranding student loans as a “graduate tax” appears to be part of the growing trend of using bonded servitude (alongside,  IR35, RTI and Universal Credit) to preserve Platonic caste-based “careers for life” and the wage slavery of the 20th century “mixed economy: with public services and nationalised industries replaced by hand-in-glove (commercially confidential) “strategic relations” between the tribes of Whitehall, Westminster  and Town/County Hall and a mix of outsourcing conglomerates and regulated monopolies.

But each “industrial revolution” has brought about fundamental changes. “Establishments” which resist those changes do not survive. The survivors are those which work out how embrace and exploit change, recruit the best of the innovators into a new and evolving “Establishment”.

Insult is added to injury as many young graduates realise their debt was spent inefficiently acquiring knowledge that has not enhanced their future earnings. They will never catch up with those, lucky enough to get a graduate level apprenticeship who are now managing them. I say “lucky enough” because it is harder to get a place on current graduate level or degree linked apprenticeships than almost any full-time degree course.

Each industrial revolution has led to a wave of social change that triggers a student revolt against “the establishment”. That accompanying the 4th industrial revolution is now under way.  It has already cost the Government its majority at the last election. It has led to massive pressures to improve the quality of teaching and universities having to compete for students as never before. It has led to cut throat competition (and dubious offers) for a shrinking pool of gullible applicants. But, as yet, too few of the latter have an informed choice. Hence the focus on this in the Prime Minister’s review of FE/HE funding. The winners will be those Schools, Universities and Colleges who help all ages, not just the youth of today, to also continue learning while they earn sufficient to regain the additional freedom of choice (including of home, family choice and a dignified old age) that a crumbling crypto-socialist/capitalist state can no longer provide. We can already see the Public Schools, masters (and mistresses) of survival, beginning to involve their alumni with organising careers fares which offer globe-trotting graduate apprenticeships with residential periods in best of breed Universities around the world.  At the other end of society, we  can see the provision of full fibre broadband to social housing estates enabling those not in education, employment or training to enjoy access to world class education and training programmes.

History is made by those who show up  One of the recurrent themes of this blog is that the silent majority gets what is deserves – ignored.

I regularly call on readers to be active via the political parties of their choice, via their professional bodies and/or trade association. I am currently trying to find those who will take over from me in driving the groups via which I have tried to influence, inter alia, skills policy. If you agree with the analysis which follows, and more importantly if you disagree, please contact me via Linked In (with your e-mail address) and volunteer to help build the future you want.

2) The structures and concepts behind our educational values and hierarchies are under global threat … or are they?

On-line access to modular materials, courses and assessments enables employers around the world to “cut the time from learning to earning” from years to weeks. Schools with access to full fibre broadband can similarly transform the delivery of STEM education and careers advice, using the wealth of material already available. The future I envisaged in the early 1980s is coming to pass.

There is, however, now an even bigger challenge. Examination systems around the world are under threat. That threat is not just from internet-assisted cheating (from cyber hacking to get the answers through “electronic examination aids” to impersonation) or because employers are looking for different attitudes, aptitudes and competences. It is from the use of Cloud and AI based techniques to better assess achievement and competence, not just to identify latent talent  and individualize the delivery of content that will attract and harness that talent. The “gamification” (alias user attractive/seductive front ends) of educational products and services at all levels makes it far easier to engage the non-academic.

It is not as though the concepts are new.

One of my favourite educational texts is a battered copy of the 1918 edition of the Board of Education “Suggestions for the consideration of Teachers and others concerned in the Work of Public Elementary Schools.” It is all about education in its classical form, the drawing out and harnessing of innate ability. Most startling for the audiences of today, a century later, is the apparent iconoclasm of 1905 (reiterated in a preface dated 1917) with regard to the values we take as “given” today, particularly our belief in the value and virtue of a national curriculum:

The only uniformity of practice that the Board of Education desire to see in the teaching of Public Elementary Schools is that each teacher shall think for himself, and work out for himself, such methods of teaching as may use his powers to the best advantage and be best suited to the particular needs and conditions of the school. Uniformity in details of practice (except in the mere routine of school management) is not desirable even if it were attainable.

Today the range and variety of online materials and teacher aids that could be used by teacher to extend their “powers” are constrained only by the curricula over which so many professionals spend so much time with the aim of maintaining, enforcing and updating a Stalinist uniformity in details of practice which our ancestors regarded as anathema.

3) The impact of AI on education and training will be both more and less than I predicted in 1981

In 1982 Norman Tebbitt (then Secretary of State for Employment used a comparison between the Bloodhound Missile (controlled by two kilos of programmable hardware powered by electricity) and the English Electric Lighting Fighter (controlled by half a kilo of wetware powered by gin) to bring a debate on the effect of AI on jobs down to earth. 1989 the then Minister of State for Education, Angela Rumbold, introduced a BBC schools programme on a competition for schoolgirl produced IT careers videos by describing her personal computer as an extension of her mind. A similar point lies at the heart of “The Digital Ape” in which Nigel Shadbolt and Roger Hampson describe how we should live in peace with smart machines .

If we look though the other end of the telescope – at the opportunity instead of the threat – technology enables us to bypass planning processes which have failed for more than over five decades and appear increasingly irrelevant to the future, even if they could be made to work.

Instead of preserving the past we need to ease the pain of transitioning from a centralised, standardised vision of education as a means of imposing the thought patterns of the current establishment on the youth of today to a reinvention of devolution, innovation and evolution to enable them to handle a future which neither we nor they can predict with any more accuracy and certainty than our ancestors.

4) From the Generic to the Digital: from computing in schools to replacing the Tech Partnership?

The problem with discussions on computing in schools is that, once again, the basic disciplines change slowly, if at all. Meanwhile products and services available and the skills supposedly in demand change faster than the timescale for agree a curriculum, let alone deliver. Coding was fashionable in the early 1980s and the micros in schools programme produced a generation of talent including the sound and visual effect engineers, (alias real-time programmers) who enabled British bands to dominate the world. Then came the focus on the mass market “use of IT”, alias how to use Microsoft Office.  This served to turn off the next generation – IT became synonymous with boring. The profession wanted a TV soap to enhance its image. It got The IT Crowd.

Now coding is back in fashion. But its greatest value is that it can draw the non-academic into the world of pure logic, bypassing the boring bits – for example by programming microbits to control physical objects and illustrate the disciplines of practical engineering in ways akin to the exercises in the Board of Education Guidance (to which I referred above). Add data analytics (probably best embedded in history or geography projects) and systems thinking (whose absence lies behind most IT disasters of recent years) and we have the basic disciplines needed for most of modern life – not just for “computer scientists”. Meanwhile learning how to cheat an AI based examination system may well be the best way of cutting through the mix of hype and fudge to comprehend the reality behind the emerging “smart” world.

While I was Secretary General of EURIM (now the Digital Policy Alliance) I organised and/or chaired a series of meetings at which a common theme was the need to rationalise the number of channels via which employers were expected to submit their views on what they wanted. A classic statement of the need was in the 2001 IT Skills Summit when the then head of Academic Relations for Microsoft said that his 12 staff had logged over 3000 requests to attend meetings to discuss inputs to exercises to plan courses and curricula. He reckoned he could reasonably schedule attendance at about 300 but there was no way of getting Universities, Colleges, School Course and Curriculum bodies, Funding Agencies etc. to talk to each other. Hence the case for having all such requests routed through a Sector Skills Council (e-Skills, which later became the Tech Partnership). But it never received the funding/authority to fulfil that role. The Funding Agencies kept it on a drop feed, lest is show true independence and the Universities kept bypassing it.

The termination of public funding for the Sector Skills Councils and the consequent winding up of, inter alia, the Tech Partnership has led to a re-fragmentation of the channels via which digital employers and skills providers can make their views known to those working on course and qualification development and delivery. It is, however, interesting that the large IT employers funding one of the successor bodies, that looking after standards and quality control for graduate level digital apprenticeships, are making clear to Universities that they have no time to respond to contacts other than collectively via the new group. Other industries appear to be agreeing similar de facto arrangement with the Institute for Apprenticeships, including for technician level apprenticeships.

Will DCMS support the Digital Industries in organising similar arrangements with Ofsted and the Funding Agencies, who control all but the content frameworks? If so, what will happen with regard to the much wider, and more amorphous, digital user community?

Hopefully, with the Prime Ministers review into funding, we will soon the end of the long standing disconnect between employers needs and the programmes they recognise and public funding processes to support those who do not benefit from industry funded learning/training opportunities. The Digital Policy Alliance 21CN Skills Group recently agree a sub-group to look specifically at this lssue.

5) How do we manage the transition when time is not on our side?

The new processes for applications, technician and professional level apprenticeship standards and delivery are not yet agreed, let alone operational. It is unclear which existing standards frameworks can be re-used with new technical content. The pressure from employers who are unable to offset their current training spend, including on apprenticeships, against the new levy is mounting. We can expect many to go political during the party conference season.

Meanwhile the pressure to reduce reliance on imported skills and the unpopularity of the Student Loan scheme led to the Prime Minister’s review. The responses have been mixed. Some are busy preparing response to defend their current process and deferring difficult decisions until they see both the report and the implementation plans. After all they have seen off many such exercises in the past. Other believe that is it now different. Whatever it recommends the writing is on the wall and they are beginning to organise what they think it should recommend.

I therefore ask readers if they are willing to help organize/co-ordinate well-informed inputs to that review and to the various policy studies (Conservative Science and Technology Forum, Labour Digital etc.) being conducted in parallel, for who-ever (if anyone) wins the next General Election, whether before, after or instead of Brexit.

But given we would be immortal if death came from Whitehall (or Brussels, Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, Rome, Spain, Washington … take your pick), it is more important to support those building on existing successful/good practice – regardless of what Government does, or does not plan.

In this context I would like to commend the TeSLA project being worked up via iStemplus with the support of WCIT (the IT Livery Company) and the work being done via the National Education Network (the collective body for the Grids for Learning, who organise secure Internet connectivity and access to content for most schools in the UK) to not only put such materials on-line but also transform access to careers advice.

Put the two together, add in the Open University, JISC/Janet (the “mutual” which connects UK Universities, Colleges and provides the backbone for the Grids) and LINX (the “mutual” which connects UK internet users with each other and the outside world)  and the UK has a world class educational “utility” infrastructure that could give us prime-mover advantage in moving to a world class open market in cloud/AI based education, training and competence assessment products.

“All” that is missing are shared vision and ubiquitous fat fibre pipes. When the politicians lift their sights and begin to look at a world beyond Brexit I hope that is what they will begin to seek. I hope that you, dear reader, will be thinking how to help them find it.

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