October 05, 2004

Positioning Tasmania as a leader in the elearning industry

Talk by Stephen Downes, 4th October, 2004, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

General Intro:

Is education and training the future? Change the paradigm to enabling learners to provide learning for themselves. In this case, then education and training as
terms in effect become redundant. I find this an interesting notion - the
blurring of lines between activities that was talked about on Friday (here,
here, here and here), but really taking that step further to Stephen's view of
learner-directed learning which is not about a learner choosing how to learn,
with 'what to learn' still being at the discretion of someone or something else.
How we reconcile this with the qualifications structures etc is a puzzle.

What makes Tasmania unique? He believes this is where our leadership will come from - not from copying what has happened elsewhere. So he asks: What are we striving for? How do we measure the idea of a world leader? Is it size, people, money?

The basic structure of the day was:

  • Role of Government

  • Role of Industry

  • Role of Education

  • The way forward

Question and Answer sessions were interspersed through the day. These notes are fairly lengthy, yet not a complete transcript; there was a wealth of information, ideas and challenges to be captured.

Role of Government

Vision, Infrastructure, Exemplar and Networking were the themes for ensuing discussion.

Stephen found the Tasmania Together vision a bit vague in relation to education, so he went digging a bit further for education related ones - which he found in the 24 goals . The emphasis in the two ones he found worries him because of the focus on skills and linkages to economic development. He asked the audience: ‘Is this really what education is about?’ 'Democratic and civil society' Goal - maybe this is his reason for coming back to Tasmania?

Despite technology - proportions of online learning are still not high. But this is not really an issue because of the huge numbers of people who use technology for pursuing their interests. Passion and interest are the real, enduring drivers. Economic development will grow out of this and possibly in a better form than otherwise.

Infrastructure is not really a money maker, especially in the early years of rollout due to large investment needed, but it is the key to opening up the future.

What has Canada done?

- Backbone [CA*Net] has been very important which allows for the practical rollout of services. Fast, dependable, always on access. Have to have the highways.
- Local Access for Communities - provision to every community in Canada. Both for community to connect to Internet and also a place for community to connect with itself. Self-managed, funded to get it off the ground. Alberta connecting all schools, hospitals and councils are getting connected to broadband - the 'Alberta Supernet'.
- Services - provision of services online eg like our Service Tasmania.
Is infrastructure access only?
He thinks not - there needs to be something on the highway.
What educational infrastructure is needed?

  • access to learning materials

  • access to software and services (including software needed for the conduct of learning online, so the role of government to provide to all learners and institutions, does not mean a LMS for all, certain minimal configurations eg web browsers)

  • access to instruction, mentoring and coaching (the personal element for human supports - for a remote learner this will often be a local mentor/coach and a remote teacher. The mentor/ coach acts as an advocate for the learner, rather than being an agent of the institutions. Clearly and unambiguously on the learners side, not in an assessment role.)

Government as an exemplar

Government needs to model the use of elearning services. Training needs to be made available to government staff through ICT - if the Government is using the technology it is promoting, then it understands in a direct way what works and does not work. Provides an alternative to the model of elearning that is normally promoted. Role for non-structured, non-linear learning.

Q&A session

Q: You had ‘networking’ on a slide, what where you going to say about it?
A: Networking is inherently important, but not sure how important at high levels. It is about ‘having a seat on the table’, and is a good way of exchanging information and ideas and the 'getting to know each other'. Developing specifications etc not the important part, but rather the conversations you have.

Q: We are paid to provide training, we work in an industry driven model, how can we do it?
A: I believe it is a myth that industry can direct training, where industry also tells government not to direct industry. Decisions should be made at the local level where they have their impact, because, you cannot at a central level, take into account all the parameters involved. It is simply too complex. "Industry are no more experts in learning than I am in building a 747". The decision-making should be distributed and localised. No-one person can get predictions right about skills shortages etc - proven time and time again. Relying primarily on industry for decision making input, creates risk.

Q: Government as exemplar in learning - How do we achieve that goal?
A: Not to provide good customers to local industry so why would we bother? Hard to prove value from learning (see here re ROI).

You mentioned people lacking specific knowledge or training needed to do their job - somehow workplace training seems to always focus on needs of the business. Decisions about learning are becoming more and more taken by the learner in a technology enabled world. Contradiction in motivators - focus on business specific skills and learner’s interest in learning. Government needs to get their head around the notion that you have to let control go to the learner, and that the return is not in the learning, but the employee gaining a greater personal benefit in working in that organisation. Greater skills, attitudes and capacities may be related to business' direction but some may not. And that has to be ok.

Q: Emerging term of 'client centred learning’ which refers to learner and employer who both have legitimate interests - What are your thoughts on this?
A: Client centred learning - learner and person who is paying for the learning. How does this come to be the case? Through access provision - ie without employment, learning not possible. If the artificial scarcity of this access is not maintained, then the person paying would not have this right. Access to learning should not be controlled in any way - through charging fees, restricting entry, or through employment. Especially where the money for training has come from government in the first place.

Balance is shifting to more like equity - mutual cooperation for mutual advantage.
Employers should make it clear what the requirements are to fill a particular position. It is advantageous for the employee to develop to make themselves to be more employable. Where there is an imbalance in decision-making then we will not get to this point.

Q: Implications of an ageing workforce implications?
A: Changing demographics are having an impact in Canada too. Lots of knowledge leaving the workforce. If you go to the idea of education being 'tapping into connections and networks', then the experts and mentors are available online. Maybe we should be encouraging those leaving the workforce to become the educators (experts and mentors).

Q: Role of Immigration?
A: Given free trade of goods and wealth, in a world of globalisation, people should be able to move freely also, which frees them from being restricted by the local industry conditions. People need to be able to follow the wealth that shifts around in a globalised, free trade economy.

Q: Bandwidth and content supply?
A: Content is becoming a commodity and there is an oversupply happening. If you have a commodity, which is scarce, then the price will far exceed its value. In extreme surplus, there will be no incentive to manage it (eg fishing grounds being exhausted because there were so many fish). Why do people do things? Because they want to. So much content being produced online for the same reason. The value of content (including software) declines by a 2x magnitude, what was $100 is now $1. So who is going to produce content?

Prevailing business model will be in the area of services that cannot be copied - people are buying experiences and that cannot be duplicated. This is micro distribution - eg concert tapes sold straight after the event only to those people who were there. This will create the post-digital economy - selling the things that cannot be duplicated.

Role of Industry

An ideal of a guaranteed wage for all Canadians came from the McDonald Commission (which also recommended free trade with the USA). The guarantee was meant to stop people falling through the cracks or a huge welfare system that costs more to administer than it distributes. What would this mean for industry? Would people work if they did not have to? The threat of poverty would no longer motivate people to work. Industry has to pay enough so that people will be inspired to goout and get skills so that they can be employed.

‘Education becomes knowledge based empowerment’

Government-industry partnerships need to be more than government providing the funding, a true partner, 'working with'.

Website to check out for those involved in the elearning industry – http:// www.elearningforum.com - based in Silicon Valley, elearning in this case standing for ‘emergent learning’.

One of the key principles of clustering is communication, and also autonomy at the local level which allows space for competition between cluster members. Mutual exchange of value - capacity and expertise.

We should be moving to a new model focussing on:

  • services - brokering

  • scarcity

  • experience - don't look back, don't design on what has already happened if you want to be a leader.

Open source is about building capacity in customers not dependence. This idea could also be applied to learning and learners and their employers.

Loving Tasmania

Why do businesses stay here? They have no inherent attachment to place, but why? What is the 'Tasmanian Experience'? What are the intangibles?

Role of Education

Themes underlying everything
- network
- ecosystem
- innovation happens at the edges

Education's roles are to build skills and also, and more importantly, personal empowerment. When learning goes online , the learning can be everywhere, in the community and based upon or founded upon our experience. Stephen sees the Internet as giving mobility, to see further, to gather information as it is needed.
- If institutions lost their monopoly on certification and government funding ceased to exist, what would our institutions look like?

New initiatives in elearning - future feed

Where are we now?

Elearning is really still 'tell and test' based on converting distance education to an online format. Despite the promise of mass customisation there's no practical way to do it - that results in unique experiences for unique students. To achieve this some standardisation is needed, that is, standardisation about how things interconnect, not about what they say/do/contain... standardised syntactically vs semantically.

The structure of the internet being a distributed network, with universal access for publishing, decisions occuring in an open-ended environment, should be applied to how we look at learning - one based on communication rather than publishing. A world in which learners are creating a lot of the content. Tasks need to be distributed by the teacher rather than the teacher doing it all - think of the discussion list for posing and answering questions.

Stephen drew some parallels between New Brunswick - e.g. building on current expertise,positioned to offer an alternative to monolithic elearning, network technologies, online learning content and distribution. But Tasmania does need to adapt to a distributed student centred learning network.


Q: What do we do about non-high end learners and elearning?
A: On the bus trip to Strahan, every person on that bus, except for Stephen, had an electronic device of some kind - playing games, texting, listening to music. These people are able to adapt to the Internet, and using it for learning. The question is, why don't they use it then? Because it doesn't relate to their learning needs. Gen Y have little patience for instruction and manuals. Games are incredibly complex, but the learning is embedded in the activity. The issue with current online learning is that it is not well adapted to the learners, so online learning needs to adapt, not the learners.

Q: But aren’t the underpinning skills too complex eg Frontpage or computer games
A: Start out simple - choose the technology that has demonstrated wide adoption and quick implementation, for example blogs. Questions of intent and motivation come into this as well - is the learning selected by the learners? Technology is widely adopted, but not yet elearning technology, because it is not suited to them.

Q: Aren’t there risks in being too open, too learner-directed?
A: Need to distinguish between the credentialling and the education, when considering the growth rates in university enrolments which was given as example of desire for structure.

Q: Whatabout standardisation and learning?
A: Weneed to distinguish between different types of standardisation. Semantic standardisation eg curriculum, within certain parameters everyone receives same education, but this is only really appropriate where people have standard jobs, attributes, aspirations. And life’s not like that.

Papert has said - if it's foundational then the need for it will become apparent in pursuing the non-foundational. Wherever possible, this will be best done through application of the foundational to practical problems.

Q: But, how do you know what you need to know? And what about differences in learning styles?
A: Someone with research skills can identify what is needed to be known to solve a problem. We need to structure education for maximum empowerment and ability to think, reason and learn for themselves. 'Autonomous' does not need to equate to 'unstructured'.

Bringing it all together

RSS is chaos in action, there is no real agreement, multiple flavours, millions of users.

Compare that with IEEE Learning Object Metadata, how many people are really using IEEE LOM?

And the reasons?

Stephen argues that RSS is simple, only protocols about what people could agree on which was very little. Everything is optional in RSS, any tag could be left out, or added in. Even invalid RSS will work in the applications because the people designing those applications know the diversity and chaos.

Q: Should we drop everything and go to open source?

A: Not everything in open source is ready for the prime time. This talk is about having a direction and having a goal. Subtle, slight alterations. Each incremental step takes you closer to the end.

Future Directions

  • small pieces
    loosely joined - applies to everything

  • fast, furiously
    out of control - decentralisation

  • content as
    vocabulary (the actual resources (text audio video etc) are becoming the new
    vocabulary, in addition to text, which forms a single idea as a package,
    non-linear, inter-related)

  • Learning as conversation where process of learning is joined inextricably to living, and learning becomes the product.

  • Wikis - very simple technology

  • CMS - input screen, drop down lists, easy inputs.

  • Blogs - no organising committee :-) like RSS.

  • Check out http://www.educause.edu/pub/er/erm04/erm0450.asp

  • Wikis, Blogs and RSS have become the defacto semantic web

  • OAI - journal articles online http:www.openarchives.org - uptake 435 insitutions participating with millions of articles. As an alternative to the Online Journal Databases. In Britain there has been a major recommendation that academics move away from the traditional journals and prefer open access publishing.

  • RSS Aggregators
    can be found at http://blogspace.com/rss/readers.
    Bloglines includes a recommender service - if you add your blog to Bloglines,
    then it can start recommending others to you based on the content of yours.

  • Edu_RSS - harvests about 300 feeds.
    Combined views from various sources to provide a wide view.

Stephen closed with a quote from Olegas Truchanas, a wilderness photographer who was involved in the Lake Pedder Campaign, on the side of a building in Strahan.

“If we can revise our attitudes towards the land and the earth if we can accept a role of steward and depart from the role of conqueror, if we can accept the view that man and nature are inseparable carers of the unified goal, then Tasmania can be a shining beacon in the dull, uniform and largely artificial world.

Innovation does not come from the top - it comes from the edges. This is why consultation happens, and where capacity has to be built. That is where ideas come from.

Posted by Kirsty at October 5, 2004 02:43 PM

Very well summarised Kirsty. You may be interested in directing readers to Canarie as it was this project that got the CA*Net project going. I found it fascinating because the project funding was only allocated to schools/unis/colleges but they could not access funds until they had an Industry partner who/which would partcicpate jointly with the school etc with out any payment!!! Their income would come post the project as business built. Canarie resulted in all Canadian schools/unis/colleges being on broad band achieved over about a 2 year period but still expanding.


I also love the development of the semantic web since being in Canada 2002 and now seeing Stephen's predictions of 02 coming to fruition.


Posted by: Peter Higgs at October 13, 2004 01:58 PM

Great to be able to read this summary as I was unable to attend, thanks Kirsty.

Posted by: Jocylyn Cross at October 17, 2004 09:27 AM