The rise of the robots and the power of shared values (2017: part 2)

This is part 2 of my look back at my year in Learning Technology in 2017 (read part 1).

The rise of the robots and the power of shared values

Another story that has shaped my work this year is the ‘rise of the robots’ with headlines once again prophesying a future where every job is under threat and where, in education in particular, robots will soon replace teachers and lecturers all together. From gleefully pronouncing the ‘uberfication’ of education to examining the potential efficiencies that can be gained by an automated system for delivering learning and accreditation, this past year has had it all. And many eloquent writers and researchers have dedicated their efforts to examining what is actually happening and what impact it may have.

In my previous post I wrote about how we can make use of the ubiquity of ‘digital’ to raise awareness of Learning Technology and the work we do. I argued for the need to define clearly what we mean when we talk about all things ‘digital’. When it comes to talking about intelligent or learning machines (or indeed teaching machines), language is even more important.

When we talk about robots coming to take our jobs what we are really talking about is human agency, human decision making to replace human workers with machines. Just because we may be able to make machines that are ever more sophisticated doesn’t necessarily mean that the ‘rise of the robots’ is inevitable. Those in power have choice. We have choice.

By talking about machines like human beings we transfer to them a sense of being similar to our own. We talk about how they learn, how they feel or what they need. As an Anthropologist I specialised in the study of Material and Visual Culture, more specifically the relationship we have as human beings to objects, and so I have a particular interest in this area. I know that our sense of who and what we are is shaped by how we perceive the world, our senses, and that even understanding another person’s view of the world can be a challenge, particularly if they have a different cultural background.

Thus, when I listen to conference presentations or vendor pitches evangelising about the next generation of caring machines, of robots who have empathy, who will provide care for our elderly or teach our children, it makes me pause.

It makes me pause because I think it’s important that we acknowledge our agency in the evolution of machines. It makes me pause because being human is more different from being a machine than the way we talk about it seems to imply.

Our relation with technology

Much of what I work on builds on decades years of research exploring how technology can be used effectively for learning, teaching and assessment. Learning Technology, by definition, advocates the use of technology in education even if it does so critically. Every part of our lives, and increasingly the lives of the majority of the human population, is permeated by digital technologies and our education and training systems reflect this.

In my last post I argued what we need to focus on is how we can best use technology to achieve our aims for learning, teaching and assessment. The next step is to consider what values we share that define our aims and what part, if any, machines play in that.

Over a year ago, when ALT set out to create a new strategy, we started on a journey that has given me a new insight into the power of values. My previous experience of setting out strategic aims was that usually one or two individuals end up writing such documents and few people ever read them. Instead we ended up on a journey through a collaborative, consultative process that resulted in articulating strong strategic aims and shared values that better communicate what we do, why and how. It was an empowering experience for everyone involved that has had significant impact not only for our organisation, but far beyond as I have openly shared not just the end result but also the process that got us there with other organisations including UCISA and the YMCA and at events like OER17, ILTA’s annual conference and Mozfest.

From supporting the campaign for right copyright to finding a new Open Access publishing arrangements for ALT’s journal, Research in Learning Technology, joining the Creative Commons Open Education platform, much of what I do day to day is all about putting our values into practice and advocating for what we care about as a community. I make sure that the values we have inform our aims and use that as a basis for operational decisions.

From values to action

One of the highlights of my year, ALT’s Annual Conference, provides an international stage on which you can see the power of the values we share in practice. Not only in the academic programme, but in the way the event is organised and how participants engage with it. For example, open elections in which every Member of ALT can vote each year result in three new Trustees joining ALT’s Central Executive and we welcome them at the AGM that is open to all to attend and live streamed. Like the strategy, ALT’s Annual Report is written by Members for Members and gives a clear account of finances, governance and achievements. Making the effort to issue open calls for getting involved in various activities, from conferences to publications, and ensuring there is regular turnover and transparency helps engage hundreds of professionals each year. It also ensures power and decision making is distributed throughout the community and that is really important to me.

Elizabeth Charles as a newly election Trustees of ALT

As well as good governance, I help recognise and celebrate the achievements of outstanding peers within our community, through for example supporting the Honorary Life Membership and the international Learning Technologist of the Year Awards. Members from across sectors and with different areas of expertise make up the selection panels I support and we actively promote diversity throughout the process. Each year winners reflect the the range of achievements in Learning Technology and showcase the impact of the work of individuals and teams from our community around the globe. It’s inspiring to see what can be achieved often against all the odds.

Josie Fraser receives her Honorary Life Membership of ALT (with Martin Weller and myself)
Celebrating the Learning Technologist of the Year Awards 2017

Whilst the Annual Conference may be the biggest stage on which we recognise professional achievements, there’s much happening throughout the year that recognises and rewards Learning Technologists, like the recent CMALT celebration I took part in (cake and all).

Newly minted CMALT Holders at the University of Edinburgh (image with kind permission from Susan Greig)

Whether in person or online, what’s important about these kinds of celebrations is that they give expression to the value placed in professional practice, in valuing people. And what individuals do to play a part in this does matter. It makes a difference to colleagues, staff, managers. How we work together, how we support each other, how we talk about, relate to and use technology matters. As a Learning Technologist in a leadership position I leverage my position to purposefully set an example that reflect my values.

Taking personal responsibility to put values into action makes change happen. And that applies to the decisions we take about our relationship to robots, to machines, just the same. Coming back to the the rise of the robots, it’s not inevitable that much of what we currently do will be done by machines in the future. I argued for the difference individuals can make to achieving equality through openness in Learning Technology when I spoke at ILTA’s Annual Conference in June. Now, I hope that just as the fight for equality continues, our efforts to form an equitable relationship with machines and technology (in education) will provide a balancing weight to technological determinism.

Recent posts by me on values

Thanks, again

I take a collegiate, collaborative approach to leadership and my work in general. This is particularly true of some of the examples I mention in this post. I am fortunate to have so many people to work, think and make things with. As you’re reading this you are likely to be one of those people, and I’d like to say thank you. You made all the difference to this year for me.