The OEB 2015 Opening Plenary featured talks from three speakers whose work reckons with the state of change not just in education but the world broadly: David Price, OBE – a learning futurist who works on some of the biggest challenges facing business, education and society; Cory Doctorow – activist, science fiction author and co-editor of boingboing.net; and Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalisation and Development and Director of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford.
By George Bodie
Central to the plenary was the key dichotomy of our era of rapid change: opportunity versus risk. The three plenary speakers provided insights into how the changes in society, the economy and learning can represent both chances for effecting positive, real change, as well as dangers.
David Price began on a personal note. A recent operation for colon cancer has convinced him of the need for what he calls ‘people-powered innovation’ – innovation that stems from individuals as opposed to institutions. In searching for treatment, Price said he went to various health providers who, he claims, were limited by the structures of institutions and had to operate almost covertly outside of them. This is indicative of a wider problem, namely that these institutions are obstructing innovation.
Increasingly this is becoming a problem specific to education, as people turn away from educational establishments. Learners are finding new ways to get what they need, beyond the institution, and thus degrees are losing their currency. Price identified three things we can do to encourage people-powered innovation. Firstly, stop being afraid of the professional-amateur divide: increasingly, innovation is coming from ‘outsiders’ and not those ensconced in institutions. Secondly, we need to re-regulate wherever possible and, thirdly, we cannot be in denial regarding the scale of change that is upon us.
Next up was author, blogger and privacy advocate Corey Doctorow. Reflecting on his experiences as a father, he stated that his biggest parenting regrets were the times when he saw his daughter working on a problem on the edge of her competence and interrupted her, replacing a ‘genuine moment of learning with a kind of embarrassment.’ These small incidents shed light on a problem affecting society on a much larger scale, as schools are now so widely under surveillance.
A prime example of these dangers, Doctorow argued, is the blocking of websites in school networks, which is not only widely circumvented but also often blocks important and helpful websites. Children, Doctorow noted, are the ‘beta testers of the surveillance state’. Our electronic devices now treat us as attackers, and this is allowing companies to treat customers as inconvenient obstacles to mass data collection.
Why is this important? Doctorow suggests that privacy is a virtue in and of itself, because people need private space to innovate. He warns that the stifling of this space by the surveillance state will be the number one threat to education in the coming years.
Ian Goldin painted a broad historical narrative of an increasingly interconnected globe. Walls are coming down everywhere, Goldin claimed – there are 4 billion more connected people today than 1989, which has been accompanied by a release of individual and collective genius. The pace of change doesn’t show any sign of letting up either, and Goldin predicts that it will gain in velocity, producing increasingly more intense surprises.
Humans, once connected in small communities, have dispersed around the world and formed new kinds of networked communities. Can we adapt to this new situation to think in new ways? This is important, Goldin claimed, because these walls coming down will have implications for how we live – whilst life expectancy grows and wealth rises, the picture isn’t all rosy. With a forewarning of the historical example of the Renaissance – which saw a great growth in thought but no improvement in human welfare – Goldin noted that globalisation gives two key causes for concern. Firstly, it creates new walls whilst removing others; inequality is on the rise, as the pace of change leaves people behind. Secondly, interdependency allows not only the good but also the bad to spread more easily. In the case of pandemics, for example. This amounts to what Goldin calls the ‘butterfly defect’ of globalisation. Against this defect, we need to prepare for a future that is unpredictable.
The message from all three speakers was clear then – change is upon us, and we are compelled to adapt to it, to sink or swim. How to make the 21st century an age of opportunity, not just in education and training, but for humanity more broadly, would guide discussion at the conference for the next two days.