Some problems are better than others: Reflections on the English Australia Conference 2015

The object is always to satisfy needs with the greatest possible flow of commodities, to produce these with the techniques which permit of the greatest profit and, lastly, to accord prime importance to those needs which are most profitably satisfied. (Andre Gorz, 2013, Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology, Chapter 1, section 6, emphasis added).

Innovating with old ideas

The official theme of this week’s English Australia (EA) Conference 2015 was ‘change, challenge and opportunity‘. The popular shorthand for this, however, seemed to be ‘(disruptive) innovation‘. Several speakers – from the very first (opening plenary speaker Dominic Thurbon, a self-described entrepreneur who now runs an apparently successful consulting firm) to the very last – suggested that we are living through times of unprecedented change. Hm, that’s exactly what last year’s opening plenary speaker said…

Yet, for all the talk of innovation and disruption, the three main ‘takeaways’ for delegates seemed to be:

  • We should be humble.
  • We should be running Extensive Reading programs at our colleges.
  • We should be doing more research (especially of the Action variety).

Fantastic! These are of course all things we should be celebrating more but does this not undermine somewhat the epochalist orthodoxy? If it’s disruptive innovation we should be pursuing or on the lookout for, why then are the ideas that most captivated people ideas that have been under-valued or ignored for so long?

I have to admit it’s getting better

I wrote the following last year in response to what I saw as tech boosterism at   the 2014 conference.

It will be interesting to see how technology is dealt with at the EA and NEAS Conferences next year. I’m hoping to see evidence of an increased problematising of technology in education and a greater emphasis on its impact on learning experiences and outcomes. What’s just as likely, though, is that we’ll hear about Google Classroom, the fruits of the partnerships between Knewton and CUP, Macmillan, Cengage and Pearson, and a whole new slew of apps and websites.

I didn’t go to the NEAS Conference this year but at EA there was perhaps an even stronger focus on technology. How much problematising was there though? Was there a greater impact on the impact of technology on learning experiences and outcomes? What apps and websites did we hear about?

On the whole, I thought the treatment of tech was much more nuanced and critical than last year. The most obvious example of this was Jeremy Harmer’s plenary on the importance of teachers this morning, which began with a recount of the Mitra-at-IATEFL kerfuffle. Later on, Harmer gave Philip Kerr’s blog a massive plug for Kerr’s analysis of adaptive learning in ELT.

Similarly, Damien Herlihy made a number of valuable points about the management of tech at an institutional level and quoted Randy Weiner’s recent ‘Plea to Ed Tech Entrepreneurs‘. Damien echoed my point last year that

when it comes to technology in ELT, managers and those responsible for curriculum aren’t really in the game yet. Rather, teachers are left to work things out (or ‘innovate’?) for themselves.

To the extent that this is true, many ELT managers may be unsure about what sort of support (both moral and material) or restrictions are appropriate regarding the use of technology at their institutions. They may be too intimidated to intervene when the students and teachers are a couple of steps ahead of them and actually discouraged from doing so by, for example, marketers or senior managers who want to see some ‘innovation’ happening.

This reminded me of David Golumbia, who wrote this last year:

There may be no more pernicious and dishonest doctrine among Silicon Valley’s avatars than the one they call “permissionless innovation.” The phrase entails the view that entrepreneurs and “innovators” are the lifeblood of society, and must be allowed to push forward without needing to ask for “permission” from government, for the good of society.

Is there a kind of ‘permissionless innovation’ happening in our schools and classrooms as teachers and students tinker with technology on their own terms? If so, should we be concerned about this? For reasons I’ll explore in my next blog post – about my own presentation at the conference – I think that we should be concerned and we should expect more leadership in our profession/industry.

Some problems are better than others

This afternoon, at the ‘Innovation [crikey I’m sick of hearing that word] in ELICOS showcase’, Patrick Pheasant from the University of Sydney’s Centre for English Teaching (CET) said that ‘innovation should start with a problem’. The specific innovation he was asked to speak about was the ‘University Heroes‘ app.

University HeroesGiven that I don’t know the context of the above ‘University Heroes’ screenshot, I’ll put aside for the moment my distaste at the neo-colonialist image of the ignorant foreign education system needing to be saved, presumably, by graduates of Australia’s higher education system.

At the launch of the app in February 2015, Katherine Olston, Deputy Director of CET, said that its ‘objective’ was “to inspire students to follow their dreams, come to the University of Sydney, acquire the tools and develop the skills that will enable them to make the world a better place”. This jars somewhat with Pheasant’s comment at the conference that it was at least partly conceived of  as a “leads generator” and ‘a way to get the data’ of prospective students at education fairs. That’s one interpretation of ‘student-centred’, I guess.

So, if innovation should start with a problem, what problems should we start with? The most serious? The most complex? Or, as appears to be the case with ‘University Heroes’, those most likely to yield lucrative solutions?

Updated on 6/2/16 with the Andre Gorz quote

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