Last week I was in Northern California attending the Foothill College in partnership with Innovative Educators 2nd Annual Tech Conference.  I was only able to attend the first day as I was speaking at the San Jose Open Access Unconference the following day.  It was mostly keynote presentations, so here are my notes with a bit of reflection at the end.

Alexis Ringwald, LearnUp.

Alexis started out by noting that her grandfather was a president of Cerritos College, and that community colleges have a special place in her heart.  During her time working in India on renewable energy she was in a period of massive growth, and upon returning to the USA the impact of economic stagnation was rather apparent.  She became motivated to work on the jobs crisis.  He spent six months speaking with both unemployed people and with students from community colleges.  She came to see the problem as a lack of information rather than a lack of skills.  65% of today’s schoolchildren will be working in jobs that do not yet exist, but there are still many community college graduates who lack the skills for entry level positions.

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LearnUp trains and delivers skilled workers into open positions.  Unlike the typical recruitment process, online training is provided for a specific job that is currently available.  By front-loading the training (the example given was one hour training for a sales assistant) the idea is that people can be given a better chance of being recruited.  There is a gamified, role-play element to the delivery of the training where the focus in on customer satisfaction:  Alexis claims that this ‘compressed experience’ is a convincing assimilation of what it is actually like to do the job.  The claim made is that those who use this system have an advantage in the job market.  The system is free to students (and thus OER).  Costs are covered by employers who aim to encourage applications of higher quality (although employers do not share their own proprietary training materials).  Interestingly, data gathered by potential employees is shared with employers, which could raise some issues.  At the moment, the system is California wide.  It seemed to me that this approach might be made to work for some jobs (e.g. retail) but at all well not for others.  There is a kind of MOOC-lite feel to the approach.  (It was remarked to me that this kind of role-play has existed since at least the 1980s, and perhaps is not quite as revolutionary as may be claimed.)

Candace Thille, Open Learning Initiative.

Candace‘s presentation was entitled ‘Surfing the Tsunami’, a reference to the disruptive effects of new technologies on education systems.   The difference between supply and demand for education is growing, and there is also a noticeable difference between the achievement levels of different ethnic groups.  This is happening against the background of cuts in education funding.

Thille suggested that, because higher education is so person intensive is it subject to Baumol’s (1966) cost disease:  service industries which fail to leverage technology will always see their costs rise above the cost of inflation.  Many people are trying to solve this issue in the same way that the music industry approached it by recording and distributing learning resources.  (We see this in the xMOOC approach.)  This, it is contended, cannot work because students learn through activity.

The OLI is an attempt to designed scaleable environments which can facilitate authentic learning through goal-directed practice and targeted feedback.  Support is offered through tips and prompts, through simulation capabilities, being able to learn anytime, anywhere, and from being connected to resources and other students.  Data that is collected in order to form the basis of feedback loops.  An ‘instructor dashboard’ provides information on student progress towards learning outcomes and uses a RAG system.  The feedback loop extends to instructional design and course planning.  In a pilot, students taking the OLI statistics course performed better than a control group, and the experiment was repeated several times with the same result.

The next iteration of OLI is in collaboration with EdX – OpenEdX (which will be an open source platform).  So the MOOC platform will integrate the kind of learning support that has been developed through OLI.  In conclusion, it was suggested that releasing the kind of data gathered through this kind of platform should itself be open – under a future variant of Creative Commons licensing (e.g. CC-BY NC SA SD).

The learning analytics aspect of this may well work quite well where learning outcomes are very closely defined.  I found myself thinking about how well this might work for supporting the study of philosophy.  I probably don’t understand the limits of the system well enough, but I find it hard to see how progress towards typical learning objectives on a philosophy course could be measured in this way, although there are probably some measures which are general to all learning (hints requested, time spent in LMS, etc.)  I do wonder whether the rhetoric is matched by the system capability:  and whether this is really empowering students or replacing teacher authority with the authority of the analytics.  Might it be better to encourage students to act as supports for each other?

Andrew Maguire, InternMatch.

Internmatch helps would-be interns to find internships at the right company.   It provides students with resources like cover letters, resume templates and interview advice.  Thousands of internships and jobs are advertised through the site, and the idea is that some of the company’s culture bleeds through to the Internmatch site and so prepares them to make the best choice.  There is a discussion forum.  The site attempts to link up – presumably in the same way that job recruitment sites do – employers and would-be interns.

I’m taking away an improved sense of the importance of the need for community colleges to make their students more employable.  But at the same time I’m a bit concerned that a couple of the keynotes have both seized on this to suggest that the reason for poor graduate employability is some sort of information problem (to which they wanted to provide a solution, typically based on some sort or algorithm).  But this is most certainly not the full story:  people have been hiring and firing since there were jobs and things worked OK before we had the internet too.

By identifying the graduate employability with a sort of success in matching up of skills and vacancies we risk overlooking the elephant in the room.  The real origin of problems with youth (and other) unemployment is economic.  Many world economies are in a ruinous state and on a daily basis we bear witness to pathological disparities in wealth and life opportunity.

This conference was about technology-enhanced learning rather than open education per se, yet some of the speakers made a virtue of the open aspects of their projects.  To my mind, open education should strive to act as a counterpoint to legacy education models rather than simply operate within them.  As I have argued elsewhere, OER should be seen as radical objects which ‘open up space for critical reflection on our most deeply held assumptions about the point and value of educational systems’.  Importantly, we need to preserve the notion that education has profound value irrespective of its potential to improve employability and thus must never be subsumed into this.