Tag: Technology (page 1 of 13)

Discipline in the field of edtech

I’m always wary on the rare occasions I’m in any form of disagreement with Audrey Watters. It usually shows I haven’t read enough or perhaps have grasped the wrong end of the stick. However, in Disciplining Education Technology, to me she asserts something that I certainly don’t feel is true:

Education technology is already a discipline; education technology is already disciplinary. That is its history; that is its design; that is its function.

Perhaps this perspective is a function of my geographical location. The edtech sector is tiny in the UK, and the closest that educational institutions seem to get to ‘edtech’ is employing learning technologists and technicians. Again, I may be wrong about this; it may be just invisible to me. However, it seems to me that if edtech is indeed already a discipline, it’s almost entirely US-focused.

Martin Weller, also UK-based, gives reasons (my emphasis) for embracing the idea of a ‘discipline’ of edtech:

  1. “[I]t allows us to bring in a range of perspectives. One of the criticisms of ed tech is that people come in from one discipline and are unaware of fundamental work in a related one. So the Ed Tech discipline might well have components from psychology, sociology, education, computer science, statistics, etc. This would help establish a canonical body of texts that you could assume most people in ed tech are familiar with.”
  2. “As well as establishing a set of common content, Ed Tech can establish good principles and process in terms of evaluating evidence.”
  3. [I]t creates a body against which criticism can push. When a subject becomes a discipline, then it is not long before you get a version of it prefaced by the word “Critical”. Critical Educational Technology sounds fine to me, and could sit alongside Practical Educational Technology to the mutual benefit of both.”

An additional point I’d add is that formalisation and scaffolding creates career paths for people, rather than them having to reside in the spaces between other disciplines. Look at the field of Design. There are schools within the discipline, there are career paths, but there are also consultants and freelancers who are seen as part of the bigger picture 

As a UK-based consultant who sees edtech as my ikigai, you’re often seen as ‘outsider’ unless you’re in Higher Education or work for a vendor. Work in schools and colleges is also often looked down upon. Bringing everyone together and establishing norms, processes, procedures, and ‘canonical knowledge, could  make it easier for people to move in and out of various organisations and institutions. It would certainly make funding easier.

Of course, the $64,000 question is who gets to decide what constitutes the discipline? I’d hate to see that discussion locked up in expensive academic conferences sponsored by vendors, and/or happening in paywalled academic journals. Perhaps paradoxically, open educators are exactly the kinds of people in the best position to push for a discipline of edtech.

I’m definitely in alignment with Audrey when she talks of the importance of a ‘radical blasphemy’ against the establishment of orthodoxy. My concern is that, currently, this orthodoxy isn’t explicit. What we’ve got is an implicit  orthodoxy predicated on vague notions of terms such as ‘edtech’ and ‘open education’. As I’ve already argued, I think we can move towards more productively-ambiguous notions, whilst avoiding the pitfalls of edtech as (what Richard Rorty would term) a ‘dead metaphor’.

Perhaps the crux of the problem is with the word ‘discipline’. It certainly has negative connotations, and focuses on control. Given that ‘field’ is a near-synonym, I’d suggest that perhaps we use that instead? I’d very happy introducing myself to people by saying that I “work in the field of edtech”.

Perhaps we need an unconference…

Some thoughts and recommendations on the future of the Open Badges backpack and community

Recommendation Theater


Back in January of this year, Mozilla announced a ‘continued commitment’ to, but smaller role in, the Open Badges ecosystem. That was as expected: a couple of years ago Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation had already spun out a non-profit in the form of the Badge Alliance.

That Mozilla post included this paragraph:

We will also reconsider the role of the Badge Backpack. Mozilla will continue to host user data in the Backpack, and ensure that data is appropriately protected. But the Backpack was never intended to be the central hub for Open Badges — it was a prototype, and the hope has forever been a more federated and user-controlled model. Getting there will take time: the Backpack houses user data, and privacy and security are paramount to Mozilla. We need to get the next iteration of Backpack just right. We are seeking a capable person to help facilitate this effort and participate in the badges technical community. Of course, we welcome code contributions to the Backpack; a great example is the work done by DigitalMe.

Last month, digitalme subsequently announced they have a contract with Mozilla to work on both the Open Badges backpack and wider technical infrastructure. As Kerri Lemoie pointed out late last year, there’s no-one at Mozilla working on Open Badges right now. However, that’s a feature rather than a bug; the ecosystem in the hands of the community, where it belongs.

Tim Riches, CEO of digitalme, states that their first priority will be to jettison the no-longer-supported Mozilla Persona authentication system used for the Open Badges backpack:To improve user experience across web and mobile devices our first action will be to replace Persona with Passport.js. This will also provide us with the flexibility to enable user to login with other identity providers in the future such as Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook. We will also be improving stability and updating the code base.

In addition, digitalme are looking at how the backpack can be improved from a user point of view:

“We will be reviewing additional requirements for the backpack and technical infrastructure gathered from user research at MozFest supported by The Nominet Trust in the UK, to create a roadmap for further development, working closely with colleagues from Badge Alliance.

Some of the technical work was outlined at the beginning of the year by Nate Otto, Director of the Badge Alliance. On that roadmap is “Federated Backpack Protocol: Near and Long-term Solutions”. As the paragraph from the Mozilla post notes, federation is something that’s been promised for so long — at least the last four years.

Federation is technically complex. In fact, even explaining it is difficult. The example I usually give is around the way email works. When you send an email, you don’t have to think about which provider the recipient uses (e.g. Outlook365, GMail, Fastmail, etc.) as it all just works. Data is moved around the internet leading to the intended person receiving a message from you.

The email analogy breaks down a bit if you push it too hard, but in the Open Badges landscape, the notion of federation is crucial. It allows badge recipients to store their badges wherever they choose. At the moment, we’ve effectively got interoperable silos; there’s no easy way for users to move their badges between platforms elsewhere.

As Nate mentions in another post, building a distributed system is hard not just because of technical considerations, but because it involves co-ordinating multiple people and organisations.

It is much harder to build a distributed ecosystem than a centralized one, but it is in this distributed ecosystem, with foundational players like Mozilla playing a part, that we will build a sustainable and powerful ecosystem of learning recognition that reflects the values of the Web.


Tech suggestions

I’m delighted that there’s some very smart and committed people working on the technical side of the Open Badges ecosystem. For example, yesterday’s community call (which unfortunately I couldn’t make) resurrected the ‘tech panel’. One thing that’s really important is to ensure that the *user experience* across the Open Badges ecosystem is unambiguous; people who have earned badges need to know where they’re putting them and why. At the moment, we’ve got three services wrapped up together in badge issuing platforms such as Open Badge Academy:

OBA venn diagram

One step towards federation would be to unpick these three aspects on the ecosystem level. For example, providing an ‘evidence store‘ could be something that all badge platforms buy into. This would help avoid problems around evidence disappearing if a badge provider goes out of business (as Achievery did last year).

A second step towards federation would be for the default (Mozilla/Badge Alliance) badge backpack to act as a conduit to move badges between systems. Every badge issuing platform could/should have a ‘store in backpack’ feature. If we re-interpret the ‘badge backpack’ metaphor as being a place where you securely store (but don’t necessarily display) your badges this would encourage providers to compete on badge display.

The third step towards federation is badge discoverability. Numbers are hard to come by within the Open Badges ecosystem as the specification was explicitly developed to put learners in control. Coupled with Mozilla’s (valid) concerns around security and privacy, it’s difficult both to get statistics around Open Badges and discover relevant badges. Although Credmos is having a go at the latter, more could be done on the ecosystem level. Hopefully this should be solved with the move to Linked Data in version 2.0 of the specification.

Community suggestions

While I’m limited on the technical contributions I can make to the Badge Alliance, something I’m committed to is helping the community move forward in new and interesting ways. Although Nate wrote a community plan back in March, I still think we can do better in helping those new to the ecosystem. Funnelling people into a Slack channel leads to tumbleweeds, by and large. As I mentioned on a recent community call, I’d like to see an instance of Discourse which would build knowledge base and place for the community to interact in more more targeted ways that the blunt instrument that is the Open Badges Google Group.

Something which is, to my mind, greatly missed in the Open Badges ecosystem, is the role that Jade Forester played in curating links and updates for the community via the (now defunct) Open Badges blog. Since she moved on from Mozilla and the Badge Alliance, that weekly pulse has been sorely lacking. I’d like to see some of the advice in the Community Building Guide being followed. In fact, Telescope (the free and Open Source tool it’s written about) might be a good crowdsourced solution.

Finally, I’d like to see a return of working groups. While I know that technically anyone can set one up any time and receive the blessing of the Badge Alliance, we should find ways to either resurrect or create new ones. Open Badges is a little bit too biased towards (U.S.) formal education at the moment.


The Badge Alliance community needs to be more strategic and mindful about how we interact going forwards. The ways that we’ve done things up until now have worked to get us here, but they’re not necessarily what we need to ‘cross the chasm’ and take Open Badges (even more) mainstream.

I’m pleased that Tim Cook is now providing some strategic direction for the Badge Alliance beyond the technical side of things. I’m confident that we can continue to keep up the momentum we’ve generated over the last few years, as well as continue to evolve to meet the needs of users at every point of the technology adoption curve.

Image CC BY-NC Thomas Hawk

Do only yogurt-knitting vegans start co-operatives?


(image CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers)

Despite the best efforts of the London Underground to crush us into submission before we even started, weareopen.coop had a great first planning session at Ravensbourne in London today. John Bevan and Bryan Mathers were there with me in person, and Laura Hilliger joined us via the magic of appear.in from her home in Germany.

We’d come up with lots of questions in our pre-planning meeting, as well as some aims for things we’d like to get out of the day. You can see our planning Hackpad here.


Once we’d all arrived and we’d figured out the tech to allow Laura to participate fully (which involved my ever-handy Sony XRS-11 bluetooth speaker) we dived straight into the principles by which we want to work. John, Bryan and I worked on a nearby whiteboard, while Laura took a photo of the piece of paper she worked on:

weareopen.coop - principles (whiteboard)

weareopen.coop - principles (paper)

Riffing off Laura’s three-part structure, we formulated three questions to answer:

  1. What do you do?
  2. How are you different?
  3. What do you create?

The answers to these are on the hackpad, but I’ll share where we ended up after much discussion around the second point:

  • Nimble / Limber / Acrobatic
    • Experimental
    • Bold
    • Curious
    • Improv
    • Disciplined
  • Participatory
    • Collaborative
    • Co-operative
    • Share all the things
  • Co-operative character/spirit
    • Solidarity
    • Surplus, not profit
    • Anti-individualist
  • Knowledgeable
    • Considered
    • Competitive
    • Illuminating
  • Connected
    • Old/new ways of doing stuff
    • Inclusive
    • Eclectic

We particularly liked the notion of being ‘acrobatic’ (although without using the metaphor of a circus). There’s something about it that suggests discipline with flexibility.

Bryan + Laura


We spent some time both ‘silent hackpadding’ and discussing the questions we’d come into the day focused on, but this led quickly to considerations around tools. From that we found that a really nice metaphor emerged around tools in a workshop.

Tools in a workshop

We used the improv approach of ‘Yes, and…’ to build out the metaphor. For example, tools both old and new sit alongside one another in a workshop; there’s times when you need to ‘sharpen your saw’; and there’s times when you know you haven’t got the right tool for the job, so you have to borrow one from a neighbour.

Thinking of our own tools, we had a back-and-forth about what we should use to collaborate. The tension was between wanting to use Open Source technologies wherever possible, and recognising that clients will not always have the skills or motivation to sign up to a new platform. In the end, we decided to abstract away from specific tools to think about the type of technologies we need:

Those with an asterisk* come with a one-click install process via Sandstorm.io.

Telling the story

Bryan had to head out at lunchtime, so Laura, John, and I dug into setting up Loomio and helping tell our story through a basic pitch deck. We used The Writer’s Journey, which is a modified version of The Hero’s Journey:

After about 45 minutes of hacking and a spectacular brain dump from Laura, we ended up with this. We need to get really clear on our single product for new clients: the Thinkathon. This is a one-day facilitated thinking session that helps clients untangle problems, provides them with a ‘shopping list’, provides clear next steps.

Doug + Bryan

Next steps

A combination of factors meant that we ended up about 4½ hours of time together today. Still, that was enough to get a significant amount of work done towards building weareopen.coop. Things we need to do next include:

  1. Updating the website
  2. Creating a compelling description of the Thinkathon
  3. Setting up the tools we’ll use amongst ourselves and with clients

We’re open for business right now. Part of any new venture involves building the plane while you fly it; the difference is that we’re sharing that building openly. Get in touch if you think we can help you: hello@nullweareopen.coop

The Future of Work: Trends and Toolsets

Last month I wrote a report for a client about the future of work. In my contract is a clause that says that, apart from anything commercially sensitive, my work for them is shared under a Creative Commons license.

I’m therefore sharing a much shorter version of the 23-page report I researched and wrote for them. There was some really interesting stuff I turned up in my research around organisational structure, culture, and retention, but that section was too intertwined with the client’s plans to be able to easily and effectively separate out.  


“Your best practices won’t save you.” (John Cutter)

The main trends around the future of work seem to be broadly twofold:

  1. Empowering individuals and teams to make their own decisions around technology
  2. Democratising the process of deciding what kind of work needs to be done

4 Kinds of Work in the Future

These two mega themes (taken from ‘uber empowered’ quadrant of the above Harvard Business Review digram) can be broken down into four, more practical, sub-themes:

  1. Demise of hierarchies
  2. Re-thinking the location of work
  3. Workplace chat
  4. Mission-based work

The following posts in this series expand and explain each of the above points. The original report made some recommendations for the client. Given I don’t know your context, I’m going to refrain from appending a conclusion to this series.

1. Demise of Hierarchies

After predictions of its demise, the traditional office structure is crumbling. Only 38 percent of companies in a recent survey say they are ‘functionally organized’. For large companies with more than 50,000 employees, that number shrinks to 24 percent. (Bloomberg)

Holocratic Organization

(image taken from this post)

The buzzterm at the moment is around holacracy, an approach in which “authority and decision-making are distributed throughout a holarchy of self-organizing teams rather than being vested in a management hierarchy”. This governance model has been adopted by Zappos, Precision Nutrition, and (until recently) Medium.

Self-organising is taken to its extreme, or logical conclusion, with Valve, the company best known for the Half-Life game series and ‘Steam’ store. Their handbook for new employees explains that they hire people rather than roles, meaning people are “hired to constantly be looking around for the most valuable work [they] could be doing.” Hiring, firing, and new projects are all managed via a completely flat structure.

Metaphors are important in organisational structure, and many futurists use the idea of the network to explain their ideas. Esko Kilpi, for example, states that “the architecture of work is not the structure of a firm, but the structure of the network. The organization is not a given hierarchy, but an ongoing process of responsive organizing.” In a post examining why employees become disengaged, Stowe Boyd coins the term ‘circumvising’ to explain the shift from ‘supervising’ to a form of work where, “instead of a manager you report up to and who directs the work of those below, the social context…will constrain and support the worker from all around.”

2. Rethinking the Location of Work

Skills for Success in a disruptive world of work

(image taken from this post by Tanmay Vora)

We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. (Winston Churchill)

One trend of recent years that is universally slated in both the popular press and by futurists is that of open-plan offices. According to Stowe Boyd,

More than 40% of the respondents to a recent Berkeley survey reported that workplace acoustics make it harder for them to do their job, while other factors, like lighting, air quality, seating, etc, were rated as making it easier to work.

The assumption is that open-plan offices enable more serendipitous connections to take place. However, this is often at the expense of ‘deep work’ as noted by Cal Newport in his recent book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. It often leads to more introverted employees using headphones in order to concentrate and feel more comfortable.

Home working solves some of these problems and, indeed, many organisations have a ‘remote working’ policy, meaning some (or all) of their employees are based from wherever they happen to live. This, of course, requires a certain type of worker, with particular expectations around flexibility, availability, and digital skills. Implementing this kind of policy without training and explicit expectation-setting (for both office-based and remote workers) can lead to unnecessary misunderstanding and anxiety.

3. Workplace chat

Slack colours

So this is one megatrend: the widespread adoption of tools based on the chat design metaphor across the board in personal and work life. Chat is the new normal for communication, displacing both email and social collaboration tools. (Stowe Boyd)

The hot new technology that everyone is talking about is Slack, a ‘workplace chat’ tool with APIs meaning it integrates with everything. It is already a billion-dollar business, and this is for at least two reasons. The first is a desire for employees in most organisations to get out of their inbox. Another is that it supports the move away from a static org chart and is more responsive to the true power dynamic within organisations.

There have been many posts about the relative merits of workplace chat apps. Most futurists believe that adopting such tools is not a panacea to current workplace problems, but rather a way to demonstrate in a concrete way how teams can interact in a different way. For example, the theory of social crowding suggests that workplace chat is at its most effective when used by small teams of less than 10. This ensures that those who are doing the chatting are also the ones doing the work.

4. Mission-based work

Life cycle of a brand

Today, all companies need a constitution. No company should operate on implicit cultural rules that are based in a shadowy way on oligarchic myths. (Stowe Boyd)

Often cited as a something particularly important to ‘Millennials’ (those who reached young adulthood around the year 2000), futurists see mission-based work as key to ensuring employee fulfilment at any age. Loyalty these days is often to the job rather than to the organisation — so long as the job matches the ‘mission’ that the employee feels is central to their existence.

Graduates are queuing up to work for brands who match their outlook on life, often foregoing higher salaries elsewhere to do so. Recent research from Gallup included a survey of almost 50,000 business units which showed that employee engagement is a key indicator of business success. This is an important trend to consider.

Further reading

I put together an epic Google Doc of links and images to help with my research for the original report. You can access that here.

Banner image CC BY-NC-SA Daniel Foster

Questions? Ask in the comments and I’ll go into more detail about any of the above.

If you’d like my help in a consultative capacity, please get in touch: hello@nulldynamicskillset.com

Why the future remains bright for Open Badges

Some context

I first stumbled across Open Badges in mid-2011. I immediately thought the idea had revolutionary potential, and began evangelising it to anyone who would listen. Happily, this led to me being asked to fly to San Francisco to judge the DML Competition that initially seed-funded the ecosystem. There, I met Erin Knight in person, and subsequently accepted a position on the badges team at Mozilla.

It’s hard enough building a start-up. So you can imagine what happens behind the scenes when you’re trying to build a brand new global ecosystem. It wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. From what I understand, things got even tougher after I moved teams at Mozilla to focus on web literacy work in late 2013. My former colleagues formed the Badge Alliance, initially funded by the MacArthur Foundation.

While I was aware of some of what went down at the end of 2014, it’s only been later in small group conversations that I’ve been able to fill in the gaps. All was not what it seemed in badge land. Politics and personalities threatened to shipwreck the nascent badges community. It was a delicate balance: people deserved to know some of what was going on, but negative press could have unduly ‘scared the horses’.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to be the one to write the post that Kerri Lemoie published this week to coincide with this weekend’s Mozilla Festival:

Mozilla is Doing a Hack Job on Open Badges

In the couple of days since Kerri’s post I’ve seen some chatter on social networks. Some people seem to be worried about the long-term viability of Open Badges. Not me. For two reasons.

1. Open Badges is a open source project

The first is that Open Badges is, as the name suggests, an open source project. The great thing about this development model and approach is that, ultimately, it belongs to everyone and no-one. There are occasions when a person, group, or company might assume leadership. However,  but that can (and does) change over time. If there’s ever a time when a significant enough group within an open source project disagree with the direction it’s heading, they can fork the project.

2. The Hype Cycle predicts what’s happening

The second reason comes courtesy of Gartner Hype Cycle. It’s a way of understanding the “maturity, adoption and social application of specific technologies”:

Gartner Hype Cycle

According to Gartner’s 2015 education report (paywalled, but there’s a summary here), Open Badges is right at the top of the Peak of Inflated Expectations. As tends to happen as technologies mature, Open Badges is likely to slide into the Trough of Disillusionment in 2016. This is to be expected. In fact, according to Gartner, it’s necessary in order to reach the Plateau of Productivity.

Now look again at the hype cycle diagram. At the start of the Slope of Enlightenment it reads ‘Second-generation products, some services’. Over the last few months there’s been some discussion about pairing Open Badges with the blockchain technology underpinning Bitcoin. Back in March I wrote a post to that effect, there have been some noises in the Google Group, and (excitingly) and MIT have just launched a similar-sounding project.


So I’d say the future remains bright for Open Badges. It has experienced the growing pains as any truly innovative technology will suffer. 2016 might be rough for the community.

However, we should bear in mind that the hype cycle can describe a full 10 years from conception to mainstream. If that’s true of Open Badges then we can expect full adoption to happen around 2021. So, between then and now, there’s a bunch of us who need to roll up our sleeves, and do the work.

This stuff is too important to be a mere ‘bridging technology’. For some of us it could be some of the most significant work we do in our careers. Open Badges is what we make it. Let’s get on with building the future!

Double rainbow photograph CC BY-SA Eric Rolph. Added badge image presumed fair use from badgerank.org.

Open Badges location extension

I’m delighted that, thanks to some help from Kerri Lemoie, the Open Badges extension for geolocation that I proposed is now available for use. It was simple enough to do the initial coding following the following the example using JSON-LD but Kerri (and Nate Otto)

Details of how Open Badges extensions work can be found in this post I wrote for DMLcentral. It explains how version 1.1 of the specification allows for great things through extensions.

At the time of writing, the following extensions are now available:

  • Apply Link — provides a URL allowing potential badge earners to apply for an opportunity specified by a badge issuer.
  • Endorsement — allows a third party to publicly acknowledge the value of a badge designed, assessed, and issued by a particular issuer.
  • Location — allows for the addition of the geographic coordinates associated with a badge.
  • Accessibility — allows for the addition of content for people with disabilities.
  • Original Creator — provides a way to track the origin of a badge when one organisation creates it for another.

I’m really pleased with all of this and delighted that the Open Badges ecosystem has a bright future!

Image CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers

If you’re interested in designing badge systems and think I might be able to help, please do get in touch via my consultancy, Dynamic Skillset. I have reduced rates for third sector organisations such as charities, non-profits and educational institutions.

The TIDE is high…

#TIDE podcast

Earlier this year, my good friend Dai Barnes and I decided to start podcasting again. I’m delighted to say that, even after a planned summer break, we’ve continued to meet on a weekly basis to record episodes of Today In Digital Education (TIDE).

It’s purposely long-form, coming in at between an hour and an hour and a half. That gives us an opportunity to really dig into some of the things that have come onto our radar around education, technology, and everything in between.

Along with putting together my weekly newsletter, I find recording TIDE with Dai a wonderful opportunity to think out loud. It looks like hundreds of people agree with us, people who subscribe via their favourite podcast app, including iTunes or Soundcloud.

Why not check out the latest episode? For those reading this on my blog, I’ve embedded it below. If there’s nothing there because you’re reading this via RSS/email, you’ll need to click here.

Have a listen and tell us what you think! We’re always open to feedback. 🙂

Apple product launches as attention conservation devices

TL;DR: we use Apple’s regular product launches as a sense-check to cope with the myriad of technologies in which we could invest our time and attention.

Some background

Yesterday was another Apple product launch. Since the passing of Steve Jobs they feel less and less like the Wizard of Oz showing us behind the curtain, and more like another tech company wheeling out incremental updates while their competition catches up. This time, both Microsoft and Adobe shared the stage with Tim Cook and co, for goodness’ sake.

There’s been a lot of ink spilled and pixels pushed about Apple’s ‘culture of innovation’ and it’s ‘design-led principles’. People argue that you can get better value for money with other devices. Others (including me) worry about vendor lock-in. And so many people in my Twitter timeline yesterday were tweeting during the event that the features and products Apple were launching have been available on other systems for years.

But I think this is to miss the point. If you’ve got five minutes to spare, Steve Jobs explains why this is irrelevant in his answer to a question at WWDC 1997:

(no video? click here!)

The point is that market leaders make opinionated choices. They put the user first and make decisions based around what’s useful for the user.

Conservation of attention

I’d argue that Apple’s product launches are now cultural artefacts. They’re included in regular news items along with world disasters and briefings about national politics. Rather than considering this as ‘entertainment news’ I think it’s perhaps more instructive to see Apple’s product launches as attention conservation devices.

Let me explain.

In the not-so-recent past, it was entirely possible for people to choose not to pay attention at all to consumer technology. It could just ‘not be for them’. They wouldn’t even feature on the technology adoption curve. People like this used to live out their lives without giving a second thought to things that others (including me) would happily choose to consider during every waking moment.

Nowadays, without a smartphone and a social network account, you’re quite likely to feel like a social pariah. As a result, you’re forced to pay some attention to consumer technology. But there’s so much of it! Thankfully, there’s an organisation that you can pay a lot of money to in order to provide a small, continually-updated, fully-supported product line that will ensure you have all of the technology you need in your life.

My favourite manufacturer, as I mentioned on the TIDE podcast this week, is actually Sony. The difference between Apple and Sony is that the latter doesn’t tell people what to pay attention to. They provide a multitude of options to fill almost any niche. I can imagine Apple’s designers having far fewer user personas than other organisations — if they use them at all.


If I were an academic I think I’d do some more research into this area. For instance, Apple’s never put a Blu-Ray drive into one of their machines, choosing instead to phase out physical media. As a result, they’ve done extremely well and have tied this in with developments around app stores and new/easy ways to pay for digital good. However, the mojo only lasts as long as their products are fashionable and people agree with the opinionated judgements they’re making.

Attention is a zero-sum game: we’ve only got so much of it and once it’s gone, it’s gone. By providing regular, timely, opinionated updates about the state of the field in which they’re leading, Apple not only get to make massive profits, but are the world’s de facto ‘innovation department’ — even if they didn’t invent the technologies they’re showcasing.

Image CC BY-NC-SA LoKan Sardari

Your liberty will not survive combat drones

Back in 2008, Vinay Gupta wrote The Second Amendment in Iraq, Combat Robotics, and the Future of Human Liberty. He shortened this long title in his blog sidebar to ‘your liberty will not survive combat robots’. I think he was spot on, but the technology is not robots, but drones.

Over the last couple of days I’ve seen tweets like these about fairly disturbing developments in the news:

I don’t want terrorists threatening the peace and stability of where I live any more than the next person. But I also don’t want a situation where a government I disagree with has the technology to hunt me down and kill me with drones.

As Vinay states in that article:

Developing robotic combat capabilities will have three effects. Firstly, it will enable governments to successfully fight insurgencies abroad… Secondly, those combat robotics capabilities are very similar technologically to the capabilities required to control and oppress the domestic population… Finally, use of these technologies in foreign wars will force those who wish to do battle with the US for their political autonomy to strike at the US civilian population, as there will be no effective way of combatting US foreign policy in the field.

Our liberties are being slowly eroded and chipped away in the name of convenience and the ‘war on terror’. And, right now, I (and many other people like me) feel pretty much powerless to stop it.

The Increasing Significance of Technology in Further Education [FE Week]

The latest issue of FE Week features a supplement from City & Guilds. I’m currently spending pretty much all my time consulting with them at the moment, so I was delighted to be asked to collaborate with Bryan Mathers on this article as well as another (which I’ll post tomorrow).

Can you adapt to a changing landscape?

It goes without saying that this is a time of unprecedented change in Further Education. This is perhaps most evident in changes around funding but, in addition, an increasing drive towards data-informed decision making means the whole landscape is changing. At times such as these, it’s easy to feel powerless and it’s tempting to fall back on what we know – the tried and tested. However, as Darwin pointed out:

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” (Charles Darwin)

Change is part of life. Sometimes it happens quickly, sometimes slowly. On some occasions it’s imposed, and at other times it happens organically. However change happens, we should be ready for it and use it to our advantage. In other words, depending on our stance towards it, the uncertainty that change provides can be viewed as either a problem or as an opportunity.

Particularly during times of change, technology is often presented as a panacea, a cure-all to the problems we’re facing. For example, there are possibly hundreds of solutions promising to ‘fix’ your issues around:

  • student retainment
  • efficiency savings
  • learner attainment

However, by itself, technology rarely provides a holistic solution or way forward. Rather, it is people and culture that drive change within organisations. Human agency remains key.

Technology is useful. There are certain affordances it provides that can greatly help us. These technologies are often those that we consider commonplace. For example, we (and especially students) take for granted the use of free instant messaging apps such as Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Instagram – or video conferencing tools such as Skype, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime. As the author and educator Clay Shirky states, “communication tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.”

We don’t have to jump on the latest shiny technology, trying to retro-fit it into learning and teaching practices. Doing so is rarely beneficial. Instead, we should use increasingly-mature technologies to streamline and/or extend the core mission of educational organisations. One such example of this might be Open Badges. This is a global, interoperable system that allows for the trusted issue, exchange, and display of digital credentials.


There are many FE colleges – particularly in the North-East of England and Scotland – who have begun experimenting with Open Badges. The technology itself includes a built-in audit trail making verification easier, but the crucial difference between those using badges successfully and those not at all is organisational culture and people’s mindsets. Those places set up to embrace change understand that colleagues require at least two things to be successful when integrating any new technology:

1. Space to breathe – can colleagues ‘play’ with technologies without fear of an impact on their workload or professional identity?
2. License to innovate – will colleagues be sanctioned for stepping outside the status quo?

One of the most valuable things that educators can be given is time to reflect on their practice. For example, thinking about ways in which Open Badges can be used in a local context often acts as a ‘trojan horse’ for much wider professional conversations. At City & Guilds we’re using Open Badges as a conversation starter to think about the way we issue qualifications and credentials beyond 2015. All of us are faced with a changing landscape, and we can choose to spot opportunities as well as identify problems.

There’s no doubt that, whether it’s learning analytics, big data, badges, communications technologies, or something else, there will always be technological determinists as well as doom-mongers. Happily, the future is not fixed, it’s wide open. We can choose to adopt a playful, yet professional, stance towards technology – recognising it as a strand of equal weight with culture and people.

Images CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers